Etiquette is one of life’s essentials that adapts itself to the customs of the times. It no longer stands for a rigid and obscurely codified set of behaviours, instead, it’s a guide to creating a business climate of trust and professionalism. We are all learning etiquette all the time, and applying what we know from minute to minute in every business day. We absorb and observe the customs of the country where we live as easily as we learn to speak its language or know its geography. We understand our own rules of etiquette so well that we rarely catch ourselves in the act of applying them. That changes when we travel from the domestic business landscape; like our own, international etiquette is governed by unwritten rules and social contracts. Here are ten cultural, social and business etiquette essentials to master before boarding the flight.
- Meeting and greeting. First impressions are lasting impressions, so be sure to find out what is expected in those crucial first moments of contact. First names or last names? In some countries, hierarchy is strictly observed; who to greet first?
- Dress. Business attire is understood everywhere, and good grooming is a universal sign of respect and dependability. Then the variations set in; it’s a fair bet that the rising stars of a West Coast tech company will prefer smart casual, while luxury hotel owners in the Far East will be sticklers for tailoring. Default to business attire in the first instance and follow your hosts’ lead thereafter.
- Punctuality. Be on time. Even in countries where there’s a more relaxed approach to the appointed hour, be on time and – depending on where you are – be prepared to wait.
- Timeis a concept, and different cultures interpret it very differently. Western cultures usually tick to a faster beat; they ‘cut to the chase’, ‘get down to business’, and expect things to move along quickly. Others take their time in the belief that building trust and relationships happens over a longer timeframe.
- Hierarchyis a minefield wherever you are, quite possibly even in your own country. Elaborate rules and observances apply in some parts of the world based on gender, age, and seniority, while in others there’s a more relaxed approach.
- Small talk. ‘Small’ is a bit of a misnomer here. What counts as small talk in one part of the world has the potential to cause grave offence in another. Equally a socially fluent and engaging business guest is always welcome and has a far better chance of building meaningful business relationships. Obvious topics to avoid are race, religion and politics, even if events the country you’re visiting are making headlines. Find out where the pressure points and raw nerves are and avoid them. If in doubt, stick to weather, travel, and the arts, and follow your host’s lead.
- Body talk. Take as much care with body language as with spoken language. Different expectations of eye contact, the firmness of a handshake, physical contact, and physical boundaries apply everywhere.
- Gifts. Ceremony, ritual, an elaborate courtly dance: giving and receiving gifts is a highly developed art, governed by unwritten rules and expectations about when to present a gift and to whom, and how often it will be politely refused. It’s a little like learning the steps of a courtly dance and, like all the best moves, repays careful study.
- Entertaining. Eating and drinking is part of the business landscape. It’s the work of a moment to research a nation’s cuisine, how it’s eaten, and when. Be ready for early-morning breakfast meetings in one country, late-evening suppers in another, and brown-bag lunches somewhere else. Even if the food is not to your taste, remember a refusal often offends, and know the rules of the road when it comes to alcohol.
- Humour and irony. Every country laughs at its own jokes, often to the utter bewilderment of others. Humour loses much, if not everything, in translation – and irony is a notoriously bad traveller. A light-hearted quip to break the ice may work well in one part of the world and cause deep offence in another. It pays to be an appreciative audience until you’re more certain of your ground, and to save your own more nuanced humour for when you’re back.
By Paul Russell, co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London