Secretarial: When it is polite to burp

Cultural awareness can mean the difference between success and failure.
WHEN YOUR boss's French client signals a V-sign to you across the conference table, you could be forgiven for being upset. But to her, it merely indicates the need for a cigarette. When your boss's Saudi Arabian client refuses the company gift that took you an entire lunch time to choose, you could be forgiven for feeling furious. But to him, giving gifts with your left hand is an insult. And when the new client from Bahrain lets out an almighty burp after eating the last Danish pastry, you could be forgiven for finally having enough of all this rudeness and taking the rest of the day off. But to him, it is a sign of appreciation.

No wonder, then, that it is finally being recognised that to get on in the British office environment - where companies are increasingly in pursuit of European and global trade - it is essential to be aware of cultural blunders. "Too many office staff assume that, just because they can't speak their language, there's no hope of creating any kind of impression with a Chinese client," explains Angelena Boden, author of The Cultural Gaffes pocketbook. But body language, attitude and preferences in food and drink are just a few of the ways you can screw up and even cause a deal to be lost."

Indeed, Judi James, author of Bodytalk (pounds 9.95, the Industrial Society) says that only 7 per cent of the impact of any message is verbal, 38 per cent is tone of voice, and 55 per cent is non-verbal. So if you smile at an Italian, it is seen as polite; but if you do the same to a Korean, you will be seen as mega-pushy, as smiles are reserved for personal relationships.

Britain has one of the worst reputations for unwittingly insulting other nationalities. Anthony Sell, chief executive of the British Tourist Authority, explains: "Britain has acquired a reputation as a country that does things its way, and if the overseas visitor understands and adapts, so much the better."

New research from the University of Luton has shown that a vast number of small- and medium-size UK companies are suffering because they are simply not making the effort. Nearly half of the responding companies that proved less profitable at exporting, used agents only when doing business abroad - putting a barrier between themselves and potential clients.

For the PA or secretary, greetings and courtesies must be spot on - if only because you are often the first company representative a foreigner sees. Boden stresses: "The two golden rules are never to make judgements just because someone doesn't do as the British do, and always to take the lead from the other person."

According to John Mole, author of Mind Your Manners: Managing Business Cultures in Europe, the telephone is one of the biggest danger areas. "Imagine a foreign client hearing, `Just bear with me a moment'. It will be totally incomprehensible. Alternatively, imagine them being spoken to in the crisp, forbidding telephone manner British people are so fond of. When you're not used to it, it probably seems very rude." Humour, he says, is another liability. "Crack a joke to a German who is about to enter a meeting and it won't be well received. That's not because Germans don't have a sense of humour; it's just that humour has no place in business. Finns, on the other hand, seem to love a good joke to break the ice." Punctuality is important, too. "It is classic in Britain that a 9am appointment starts at 9.15am, but if you're Dutch or Scandinavian, not starting promptly would be extremely impolite."

Even if there is no language barrier, faux pas can be made even when dealing with North Americans, explains Boden. "Canadians can become very prickly if you assume they are from the United States, and if you give an American a business lunch in which the portions and choice are small and there is no iced water on the tables, you'll just be fulfilling their worst stereotypes about Britain."

Where languages do differ, experts agree that it is worth making a slight effort. Richard Branson recently told the Electronic Telegraph: "When I was in Japan setting up Virgin's businesses, I managed to learn a few words of Japanese. Just to see the smiles on people's faces made me realise how important it can be."

The University of Luton recently won backing from the European social fund for a project worth pounds 5.6m to implement remedial action. Eamon Keenan, project manager of Languages and Culture for Business (LCB), explains: "Our training targets one individual, such as a PA or secretary, who can go back to their company and reach everyone else. Some companies even have to look at their names. Vauxhall Nova realised that marketing in Spain would be a bit of a problem since `no va' means `does not go' in Spanish."

Companies who lag behind culturally can even go under. The LCB project director, Frank Burdett, cites one company where receivers were called in. In a filing cabinet, they discovered an order from Germany so big that it could have saved the business. Nobody had been able to understand it.