Talking Point: cultural know-how

In Japan, exchanging business cards has its own ritual. In Finland, you might be expected to sweat out the deal in a sauna. Frank Partridge finds other ways of securing good working relations on your travels
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The Independent Travel

Do you arrive 10 minutes early for an important business meeting in Rio? Is it acceptable to swan in 10 minutes late in Amsterdam?

In Moscow, is it a good idea to concede some ground at an early stage of the negotiations? And in Istanbul, should you offer to go Dutch with the host on the restaurant bill?

In each case, the answer is an emphatic "no", which goes to show that it pays to acquire a working knowledge of a country's culture before attempting to do business there.

Mastering the local etiquette can be more valuable than learning the language, because so much of the world does business in English. Or a form of English. "Beware that an English turn of phrase doesn't always mean the same thing abroad," warns Michael Bennett, who sells security systems in South East Asia. "In Japan and Singapore, people feel that 'no' is an impolite word, and will sometimes say 'yes' to avoid causing offence. What they really mean is 'I understand what you're saying', not 'I agree'. I'm told that in Indonesia there are 12 words for 'yes' that mean precisely the opposite."

Even the movement of your head can be open to misinterpretation. Publisher Robin Touquet has had difficulties in Athens: "The Greeks traditionally use an upward nod of the head to say 'no', and a tilt of the head from side to side to mean 'yes'. I was ready for that, but didn't realise the younger generation have learnt to do it our way. Confusion all round. If in doubt, keep still."

The issue of punctuality is almost as complicated. Oil company executive Malcolm Thorburn deliberately turns up a few minutes late for meetings in Brazil "because Brazilians believe latecomers are more likely to be commercially successful than people who arrive early. They're impressed by people who are relaxed enough not to worry about the clock. The Italians take a similar attitude. They believe that arriving late shows who is the boss."

Don't risk that in the Netherlands though. "The Dutch frown upon tardiness," warns film finance agent James Hindle: "They believe that people who can't use their time wisely cannot be trusted."

Hindle has also experienced the stylised ceremony of exchanging business cards in Japan, without which a meeting cannot proceed. "The business card is seen as representing the individual, so the whole affair has to be treated with the utmost respect. You must accept your client's card with both hands, and treat it with deference – perhaps by admiring it, and then placing it carefully in your cardholder. Slipping it into your pocket is seen as disrespectful, and can sour the atmosphere."

The social side of Japanese commerce can also unnerve the western visitor. "Many Japanese businessmen like to conclude proceedings by going to a karaoke bar and performing their favourite song," says management trainer Nicole Wehden. "You're expected to follow suit, and I know a lot of UK guys who are totally horrified at the prospect of doing this."

In Russia, the ritual of the business meeting is more theatrical still. "I've seen temper tantrums, sudden walkouts, table-thumping and threats to scupper the deal, but it's all part of the fun," says Michael Bennett. "And they admire you more if you stick to your guns. Seeking a compromise early in the proceedings is seen as a sign of weakness."

In almost every business community around the world, the host pays for the meal. Malcolm Thorburn was wined and dined in Istanbul, and all went well until he insisted on paying his share: "It caused genuine embarrassment, " he recalls. "In Turkey, the concept of sharing a bill is quite alien. The best policy is to graciously thank the host and return the compliment at the first opportunity."

Insurance underwriter Toni Morrison caused supper-time embarrassment in Mexico five years ago. "I was working late with a colleague, and midway through the evening I felt so hungry I suggested we carry on working at a nearby restaurant. The client thought this was a sign I had a romantic interest in him. When I realised he'd got the wrong idea I started to laugh, which made things even worse. The only way of getting out of it was to enable him to save face, so I accepted all the blame for the misunderstanding. Saying sorry is a wonderful way of putting a business relationship back on track. It's a good lesson for life, too."

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