According to the 2016 American Express Grow Global Survey, an overwhelming majority of surveyed companies (90%) agree that international markets offer significant growth opportunities. However, growth certainly does not come without challenges, and the most significant concerns for those selling outside the U.S. include the ability to build relationships with foreign partners (75%).
Building international relationships are fraught with cross-cultural challenges for even the savviest executive—and nowhere is this truer than in face-to-face meetings. Successful international relations can begin—and end—in the traditional business meeting. It’s crucial to master the fundamental rules of introductory protocol to ensure your long-term success.
Introductions: No matter the host country where you may be working, remember that all business introductions are based on power and precedence. The person who holds the highest position in an organization takes precedence over others who work there. Gender does not affect the order of the names in business introductions. In business settings, guests and customers are given precedence over one’s colleagues. The highest authority/position person receives the other person in introductions. Before your meeting, be sure and request a list of names of the senior executives and others you will meet in your host country. Ask a phonetic pronunciation of each name you are provided. Practice until you can speak each name correctly with confidence and authority.
International Eye Contact: Making good eye contact in a business setting is as American as a Monday morning staff meeting. In the U.S. and other countries, direct eye contact conveys openness, honesty and assertiveness. However, direct eye contact is actually avoided in many cultures and considered intimidating or too aggressive.
No matter what country you’re in, consider accepted cultural differences when gazing at your international colleagues, especially in these countries:
Mexico and Puerto Rico: Direct eye contact is considered an aggressive gesture. Japan: Direct eye contact is considered slightly intimidating, but the practice is slowly becoming more acceptable.
South Korea: Making eye contact is important in business meetings and at other times. It ensures attention, shows sincerity, and forms a subtle but significant bond between individuals.
Middle East: Eye contact is intense. Middle Easterners look deeply into a person's eyes to search into the soul and evaluate the inner qualities of a person. They are keenly aware that dilated pupils indicate interest, so they observe the person with whom they're dealing for such signs.
Scandinavia: Eye contact is appreciated and considered a sign of sincerity by Scandinavians. Be aware of subtle differences; however, in the way they express eye contact. Swedes look less frequently at their partners in conversation than do the Americans and British, but they hold their look for longer periods of time.
United Kingdom: The British will look away from you as they talk, but look back at you in a turn-yielding signal to indicate they're through with what they have to say. The British appear to be looking directly at your eyes without doing so, when in fact, they try to look at an angle rather than directly.
Handshaking: No matter where your business takes you, make sure every meeting, business or social setting begins and ends with a handshake. In the international business arena, a strong emphasis is placed on a firm handshake because it symbolizes credibility, confidence and professionalism. It doesn’t matter who extends the hand first, but keep in mind that the first one to do so has the advantage in establishing a sense of control over a meeting.
Customs differ in some countries, but the American handshake—toned down a bit—is accepted around the world. Some other rules to follow:
Western and Eastern Europeans re-shake hands when they are apart for short periods of time.
Neglecting to shake someone's hand is considered a rude rejection.
Remove your gloves before shaking hands, and never shake hands with one hand in your pocket.
A woman initiates a handshake with a man in all European countries.
One exception to the handshake rule is in some Asian countries where women usually nod slightly, but do not shake hands.
Conversation Skills: Internationally, Americans are often thought of as being rather boorish or loud, most likely due to media stereotypes or a couple of high profile offenders. To avoid the appearance of being the “ugly” American, adhere to these accepted forms of proper conversational skills:
Be cognizant of your volume. No one wants to be the loudest person in the room. Ensure your message is not lost by following the lead volume of those around you.
Don’t interrupt. Just like your mom and dad taught you, it’s rude and socially unacceptable in every setting.
Never ask, “Do you understand me?” You can offend an international colleague in a New York minute by taking such a condescending tone.
Keep still. Don’t fiddle in your seat, and keep an upright, proper posture to show you are engaged with your host.
Be prepared. From current affairs to the cultural climate, the more you do your homework on your host country, the more favorable you will be in their eyes.