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March 21 (Reuters) - According to a recent survey of corporate executives, over 83 percent of small-to-mid-size business in the United States list overseas expansion as their top priority.
Ninety-five percent of those polled report plans to have at least two international clients in the next three years.
The priority that businesses throughout the world place on global expansion highlights the need for cross-cultural understanding at all levels.
Understanding other cultures enables people to demonstrate respect - the foundation of every good, lasting relationship. Plus, it can help avoid miscommunication, which can be both financially and professionally damaging to individuals and organisations.
While formal cross-cultural training is the best approach for businesses operating internationally or aspiring to do so in the future, here are some helpful tips for navigating global boundaries to avoid sending the wrong message in a variety of situations:
- Follow appropriate business card etiquette: The exchange of business cards is a moment of great significance and ceremony in many countries. Failing to follow proper protocol, for example not using both hands to give or receive in Japan and South Korea, has the potential to not only be embarrassing but insulting.
- Avoid giving alcohol as an official gift until you know the culture: In most Muslim countries it's not acceptable while in some countries (like Argentina) it's appreciated because of high tax on alcohol.
- Be formal when addressing someone: Use an honorific (such as Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Dr.) with a person's name when meeting for the first time to show respect. Be observant for countries (like China) that use the surname first.
- Dress appropriately: Different countries have different standards of formality when it comes to business attire. Dressing to those standards demonstrates an important level of respect and understanding that's extremely critical to making a good first impression.
Women should always err on the side of conservative when it comes to dress and jewellery as, in some cultures, revealing too much skin (including open-toed shoes), wearing tight clothing, or flashy jewellery can be construed as inappropriate and impolite.
- Watch your body language: Did you know that a simple act, like using one's left hand instead of the right, is considered offensive in India? Avoid gestures like the "OK" signal, beckoning someone to come to you with your hand upward and crossing legs which show the bottom of your foot or shoe.
- Be all-inclusive in your greetings: When doing business around the world, make sure you shake hands with everyone you greet and greet everyone in the room. Failure to do so is considered a rejection of those you omitted, and will be noticed.
- Know your communication style: In the U.S. and Germany, communication is formal, direct and at times blunt. In Japan and United Arab Emirates, communication styles are less direct and status oriented. Brazilians are informal. Don't be surprised if you're interrupted while speaking in a meeting or making a presentation. Be sure to gently word your feedback in order not to embarrass someone.
While understanding and appreciating different cultures may seem like a nice-to-have soft skill set, the hard truth is that clearer communications, stronger relationships, and deepening trust have rewards that extend well beyond the bottom line.
Pamela Eyring is the owner and president of The Protocol School of Washington PSOW, which provides professional business etiquette and international protocol training. Founded in 1988, PSOW is the only school of its kind in the U.S. to become accredited. Any opinions expressed are her own. PSOW's website is: www.psow.edu. Editing by Michael Roddy