When it's rude to smile

International trade is full of cultural banana skins
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The Independent Online

You might wonder what's going on when your Russian customer gives you a hug outside the office, or the deal with your Korean clients seems less and less likely to succeed the more you smile. But Russian culture is such that a bear hug isn't out of place in business, and Korean culture is such that constant grinning is considered pushy.

You might wonder what's going on when your Russian customer gives you a hug outside the office, or the deal with your Korean clients seems less and less likely to succeed the more you smile. But Russian culture is such that a bear hug isn't out of place in business, and Korean culture is such that constant grinning is considered pushy.

Cultural blunders and confusions, according to research from the University of Luton, have a bigger impact on business than ever. In today's global village, says the university, those who get it right have up to four times the growth rate of those who get it wrong.

Even the police are not immune. It has just been announced that officers are to be issued with a handbook telling them how to avoid giving offence to London's ethnic and religious communities. Advice includes not summoning a Somali by beckoning with a finger - a gesture used only for dogs in Somalia - and not touching a Sikh's turban without permission. PC Wilson, author of the guide, claims such errors are enough to ruin a career.

Judi James, author of Bodytalk, says it is just as important for businesses to be culturally aware. "Workers in the UK have been slow enough to start focusing on learning other languages - something that has caused much offence to foreign business folk. Imagine the damage we will do if we don't start learning the cultural rules that go with it." Consider a detergent advert for a European audience that was made in a country where they read from right to left; the washing powder seemed to make clean clothes dirty.

Body language causes the most cultural blunders. In France, for instance, the V-sign is used for smoking. In Korea, touching your nose is very rude. And in Bulgaria, they shake their head for yes and nod for no.

Colours and symbols are other pitfalls. When developing a multinational website, it is not enough to keep English simple or even translate into another language. "You need to be aware how colours, symbols and words work in other cultures," says Tim Priestman, national account manager for the EU-funded Language and Culture for Business programme at the University of Luton. In Korea, thumb and forefinger together means money. In India, white is the colour of mourning.

Even without a language barrier, there is plenty of scope for error. The Canadians are very touchy about being taken for Americans, for instance. And the Americans - used to fast service, large helpings of food and free iced water - may feel ill-treated if those "perks" aren't available when they're being entertained in Britain.

Never patiently explain to a customer that this is not how we do things in the UK, warns Jim Lees, managing director of London Electronics. "You just have to try and learn the differences and accept them. The French insist there are 15 days in a fortnight.

"Also, when negotiating with a distributor for the first time, you never mention the order until after the cheese, which in France comes before the sweet."

Another EU-funded project aimed at helping businesses overcome language and cultural barriers is Solvit. Working as an international consortium with British, French, Spanish and German partners, Solvit has produced a CD and booklets in five different languages. "The material aims to help companies cope with issues like eating habits, clothing, language aspects, picking brand names and pointing out pitfalls like 'false friends' - words that are the same but mean different things," says a spokesperson. Would you want to suffer the humiliation of talking to a Frenchman about les préservatives in food? That is not where he would expect to find contraceptives.

* Language and Culture for Business runs courses free of charge in Sheffield, London, Bolton, Luton and Wolverhampton: 0845 603 3322, or www.lcb.org.uk. For further information on Solvit, call Bernadette Hartigan on 020 7203 1837. 'Bodytalk', by Judi James, is published by the Industrial Society at £9.95.

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