Etiquette Tips for Doing Business Around the World

Travel the world monument concept

In my career as a journalist, I often interviewed important business leaders and government officials, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

I had a brief face-to-face interview with Harper when he was in Toronto to tour a Hindu temple (his eyes are very blue), but typically I would do interviews with government ministers and bureaucrats over the phone. They were just too busy to meet in person. That suited my purposes because I was almost always on deadline and just needed a few quotes from them to complete my story.

However, I had to change my modus operandi when I went to India to write stories for the Toronto Star. None of the VIPs – typically all men – I wanted to interview would consent to chatting over the phone. In all cases, I had to schlep over to their offices, which is no easy feat given India’s traffic chaos, and then endure a lengthy wait for them to become available, although we had an agreed upon appointment time. In Toronto, I could knock off half a dozen interviews in one day. In India, I was lucky to do one.

The different approaches to doing business can be understood in the context of Geert Hofstede’s classic model of systematic differences in national cultures based on six primary dimensions:

  • Power distance
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Uncertainty vs. avoidance
  • Masculinity vs. femininity
  • Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation
  • Uncertainty/avoidance
  • Indulgence vs. restraint.

Mr. Hofstede said these dimensions refer to “anthropological problem areas that different national societies handle differently: ways of coping with inequality, ways of coping with uncertainty, the relationship of the individual with her or his primary group and the emotional implications of having been born as a girl or as a boy.”

For example, cultures that endorse a low power distance, like Canada, are uncomfortable with rigid social hierarchies and the rules that go along with that whereas India scores high on this index and is comfortable with power distance.

Many employees and companies today are going global. For employees, it’s personally enriching to live in another culture and a stint abroad can be an asset in building their careers. For companies, the fastest growing markets are often overseas.

However, before embarking on a foreign adventure, it’s important to know the nuances of business etiquette in different cultures. A seemingly innocuous gesture can give the wrong impression and put your career or budding business relationship in jeopardy.

Ashwin Joshi knows about this first-hand. He is a professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. Mr. Joshi has worked in India for the last several years for extended periods to set up an India campus for Schulich in Hyderabad. Using Hofstede’s model (which he teaches in his marketing courses) as a guide, Mr. Joshi shared three scenarios he encountered and the lessons he learned.

Scenario 1 – Power distance: At a business meeting Mr. Joshi addressed the CEO of a major financial services organization by his first name. He had known this individual socially for three years. His calling the CEO by his first name created discomfort in the room, not so much with the CEO but with his subordinates. A senior subordinate took Mr. Joshi aside and advised him to address the CEO by his last name with the prefix Mr. Joshi was also permitted to address him as “Chief”. Lesson: Show respect to power in India.

Scenario 2 – Uncertainty avoidance: Canada: is not comfortable with ambiguity in business relationships, while India is comfortable with ambiguity. In advising Schulich on entry strategy into India, Mr. Joshi had been working with the Indian government to ensure compliance with all procedures. There was one particular action (which Mr. Joshi declined to elaborate on citing confidentiality) that the Canadians proposed to undertake. Mr. Joshi consulted the Indian government as to the propriety of this action. The ruling he got back was that there was no law governing that action. The Canadians wanted a “Yes or No” response from the Indian government. There was silence. The Canadians decided not to proceed with the action based on the uncertainty associated with it. “What is interesting is that Indian firms were comfortable undertaking the same actions that we were proposing despite facing the same regulatory ambiguity,” said Mr. Joshi. Lesson: Learn to be comfortable with ambiguity when working in India.

Scenario 3 – Individualism vs. collectivism. Relative to India, Canada values the individual over the collective, whereas in India it’s vice versa. Mr. Joshi had a discussion in India about the movie 12 Angry Men. The film’s focus is a jury’s difficulty in reaching a unanimous verdict in a murder case involving a Hispanic accused. Eleven of the jurors, some of whom are racist, are ready to convict, but Juror 8 is a hold out. The movie is about how Juror 8 convinces the others there is a reasonable doubt of guilt and (spoiler alert), they return a unanimous verdict of not guilty in the end. “In Canada, the movie is typically regarded as the triumph of the individual over group think. In India, the themes that emerged in the discussion were around willful stubbornness, (western) arrogance, and the inability to make peace with others, all of which were viewed negatively,” said Mr. Joshi. “Same movie, but very different take-aways in the two countries,” he added. Lesson: Learn to tailor your message to the country’s norms.

Here is a short video that explains Hofstede’s cultural dimensions using a real-life scenario.

Just in time for this blog, the Financial Post recently ran a helpful infographic – a Quick Guide to Going Global: 35 etiquette tips for doing business around the world.

It’s a good, fun read, offering tips on communication, dress, eating and gift-giving, if you’re thinking of doing business in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States.

Have you done business or worked overseas? What lessons did you learn from that experience?

Zendesk/Financial Post

Zendesk/Financial Post


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