The Cultural Faux Pas

There are a number of resources available to help international marketers avoid unpleasant cultural mistakes when traveling overseas.  Executive Planet is a wiki-like resource featuring a country-by-country list of business etiquette guidelines. use this site or another reference resource to become familiar with the destination country or the mores of the people being entertained. Here are a few examples of potential pitfalls to help those involved appreciate the importance of understanding the culture they are dealing with:

  • Gifts. It is customary to exchange gifts in Thailand on the second meeting but gift-giving is considered a bribe in China. Avoid black or white wrapping paper in India because both are considered unlucky. Do not offend the gift-giver there by opening a gift in front of them, because that would not be polite, but do give thanks.
  • Names. Do not use first names with Japanese colleagues. Use their title or their last name and the prefix “san,” as in “Czinkota san.” It is the equivalent of “Mr.” or “Ms.” The use of san is not appropriate for spouses or children, though. In Mexico, a business card will include the surname of the individual’s father followed by the mother’s surname, but it is the father’s surname that is used when addressing the individual. This means that Senor Jorge Raul Rodriguez Mendez is Senor Rodriguez, not Senor Mendez.
  • Touching. Do not hug people in the Netherlands or Russia.  And by all means, do not give the German Chancellor a shoulder rub, as former President George Bush did for Angela Merkel during one of his trips abroad. Public displays of affection are verboten in India, too, as actor Richard Gere discovered when he kissed an Indian actress on the cheek several times at a charity event– the government issued a warrant for his arrest on obscenity charges.
  • Hand signs. In countries such as India, using the left hand for anything is cause for concern, so do not do it. In Indonesia, pounding the fist into the palm of the other hand could be considered an obscene gesture.
  • Social situations. Do not bring up business topics during social engagements in Australia and Thailand. Leave it to the local hosts to decide if business conversations are appropriate. In Australia, make sure that everyone takes a turn at buying a round of drinks. It is not wise to directly reject a social invitation in India. Even if it is not possible to attend, saying “I hope I can be there” is more acceptable. When doing business with a Scot, do not ask personal questions, even though that might be how to begin to establish a relationship with domestic colleagues.
  • Dining out. In Muslim regions, people believe the left hand is dirty, so using it to eat is inappropriate and disrespectful. In all regions, never refuse to eat the local delicacy, no matter how unpleasant it might seem.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Czinkota’s book Global Business: Positioning Ventures Ahead, co-authored by Dr. Ilkka Ronkainen.

Michael R Czinkota and Ilkka A Ronkainen, Global Business: Positioning Ventures Ahead (New York: Routledge, 2011), pg. 156-157.