You may have read or heard about proper business conduct in the workplace, but what does that mean to most savvy entrepreneurs? Many of us employ exemplary conduct daily; we express gratitude, use polite language, and practice other courteous behaviors.
This article is not merely about manners. It delves into business etiquette and protocol, which plays a vital role in professional interactions. Manners are merely polite social behaviors, while etiquette encompasses a standard code of conduct within a specific group. It adheres to the rules inherent in various situations. Understanding and following business protocol can be crucial in determining the success or failure of essential meetings, influencing initial impressions, and impressing potential clients.
Cultural awareness holds great significance for all companies collaborating closely with overseas factories and distributors, working with clients from different parts of the world.
When working in other countries, you must be well-versed in business protocol and grasp the differences in concepts and the significance of people’s rank and status. Protocol encompasses widely accepted principles and covers various aspects, ranging from behavior and attire to task execution. It also dictates how individuals with specific roles in an established hierarchy should be treated regarding precedence, seating, courtesy, rank, and honors. The protocol is observed in government, diplomacy, and the military, and it is increasingly becoming common in university settings and Fortune 500 businesses. In some organizations, protocol executives are also responsible for procuring promotional products, making it a promising niche market.
Making introductions may appear simple, but executing them correctly requires a deep understanding of the hierarchies in each country where you conduct business. While forms of address tend to be more flexible in the U.S., it is essential not to violate the rules of protocol when working outside the country. Instant familiarity is often not appreciated in most countries, so it is crucial to use appropriate titles and last names.
Introducing others is a skill that many individuals have yet to master. The key is first to acknowledge the most important person and then introduce those of lesser rank to that individual. In a business introduction, the most important person is typically the client, while within a company, it would be the senior executive. Ensure that you look at the most important person and address them first. Then, turn to the less important person or others in the group as you complete the introduction. For example, if your client is Mrs. Smith and you are introducing your sales assistant, Joe Jones, to her, the proper introduction would be, “Mrs. Smith, may I introduce Joe Jones?” It is important to speak clearly and use courteous language.
Here are a few additional tips:
- Avoid addressing an international visitor by their first name unless explicitly invited.
- In Europe and Asia, executives who have worked together for years often continue to use titles and last names.
- Middle Easterners with whom you are on a first-name basis may prefer being addressed as Mr./Mrs./Ms. followed by their first name.
- North Americans generally feel uncomfortable with class distinctions. They dislike it when others act superior or attempt to assert dominance. Influential individuals often make an effort to appear approachable and may request to be addressed by their first name. However, using Mr. or Ms. followed by the last name is always safe until instructed otherwise.
- Internationally, titles, ranks, and honorifics are deemed necessary when greeting or introducing someone. Therefore, it is always advisable to include the complete name string. If someone holds a title, ensure that you use it correctly.
We have all heard the adage that you only have one chance to make a good first impression. This saying holds especially true when operating within a different country and culture. The first step towards making a positive impression is ensuring that your visible aspects—attire, behavior, and language—are appropriate. Meanwhile, your values, assumptions, and beliefs should remain less visible. During meetings with international visitors, we act as ambassadors for the companies we represent. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the business and social customs of the individuals we are negotiating with.
When you possess cultural awareness, you can foster productive relationships and work more effectively within teams. This knowledge enables you to handle disagreements better, motivate collaborators, make decisions, and reach agreements. It is essential to ensure that your preconceived cultural notions do not influence your interactions and that you rely solely on accurate information. Avoid stereotyping groups or generalizing cultures or nationalities. By understanding other countries’ beliefs and business practices, you can differentiate between intentions and perceptions.
Here are a few key points to enhance cross-cultural communications:
- Share information about your culture, search for commonalities, and use them to build a foundation.
- Always exhibit respect and flexibility. Be prepared for higher levels of ambiguity.
- Focus on building trust and assume positive intentions.
- Learn a few words of greeting and express appreciation in the other person’s language.
It is easy to claim that you adhere to these practices flawlessly, but I have observed many events where behavior needing improvement was apparent. Whether attending an event or meeting in your own country or abroad, remember the following tips:
- Consider the impression you want to make upon entering.
- Check your appearance in a mirror before entering a room.
- Ensure that your hair, teeth, and clothing are in order—every detail matters.
- Have a snack before a networking event to avoid appearing hungry.
- Upon entering the room, survey the surroundings and identify key individuals you wish to meet.
- Ensure others notice your arrival, as most people observe the entrance.
- Convey confidence through your demeanor and maintain good posture.
- When meeting people in a business setting, focus on their upper face—eyes, brows, and forehead. This displays professionalism.
- Maintain eye contact while conversing with others.
- Are you comfortable engaging in small talk, and do you know when to approach a group already involved in a conversation? If you encounter a group engrossed in a discussion, finding someone else or another group to join is advisable. Additionally, networking events or meetings are not ideal for creating a conversation that excludes others. Save more extended or in-depth discussions for after the meeting or another suitable time.
Practice the art of shaking hands. In the U.S., initiate the handshake from the elbow, not the wrist or shoulder. Two smooth pumps suffice—avoid being the one with the bone-crushing grip or the one who barely holds fingertips. Handshake greetings differ across countries. In Australia, use a firm grip and two pumps; in France, a gentle grip and one brisk pump. If you meet someone from the Middle East, expect a limp, lingering handshake with only a slight up-and-down movement—never a firm pump. The person who extends their hand first gains an advantage as they demonstrate initiative and establish control. A woman extends her hand first, eliminating any hesitation. Remember, every business or social meeting begins and ends with a handshake.
Being a Host and Guest
There is much to learn about being a gracious host and an outstanding guest. For instance, mastering dining skills is essential for feeling at ease during meals with business associates and making a positive impression while conducting business at the table. Numerous rules govern dining etiquette, including seating, using napkins, excusing oneself, and navigating complex foods. Here are a few key points:
- When hosting a meal, consider your guest’s preferences and choose the restaurant in advance.
- Inform your guest about the purpose of the invitation and provide precise details regarding the time and meeting location.
- Approach your dining chair from the right side and enter it from your left side. This helps avoid collisions when everyone simultaneously approaches the table. When the meal concludes, push your chair back from the table, rise, exit from the right side, and push your chair back under the table. It is worth noting that a woman should never expect a man to pull out her chair during a business meal. However, if a man offers, it is polite to express appreciation.
- A helpful trick for remembering the placement of dinnerware on the dining table is as follows: all solids (bread plate, napkin) go on the left, while anything liquid (water goblet, wine glass, coffee cup) goes on the right.
- When hosting a dinner, precedence determines seating priority. Always allow the leader of the host group to approve seating arrangements. Did you know that square tables are preferred over round tables for negotiations?
Numerous additional dining suggestions exist, and I recommend attending a local class to ensure that you not only learn the correct practices but also have the opportunity to practice alongside others, thus gaining comfort in conducting yourself during a business meal. These programs can be tailored to your company’s needs or individual requirements. For further information, visit Business Dining Etiquette.
As professionals, we are constantly acquiring new industry-related skills. However, knowing these soft skills allows us to navigate the international business world more successfully.