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Business Protocols and Etiquette Abroad
By Mercedes Alfaro, President, First Impression Management

The world has changed dramatically and now it is no longer a nicety to have international etiquette training but a necessity to succeed.

To survive, we must be able to compete in a truly global economy, and to compete effectively we must understand more about other countries, other cultures, other ways of doing business.  The world has changed dramatically and now it is no longer a nicety to have international etiquette training but a necessity to succeed.  To illustrate this point, examine this example, a member of the U.S. Congress traveled to Moscow in the winter of 1992 - the worst winter many Russians had experienced since World War II.  Food was scarce and people had to wait in long lines everywhere.  Much to the horror of his escorts, he complained because he couldn't get his bacon and eggs for breakfast.  

It's really a matter of putting yourself in your European colleague's place.  In this example, you are the host and you are having European guest, you expect your European guest to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of your country and customs.  The more knowledge your guest has the more favorably impressed you will be. Europeans feel the same way about you when you are a guest in their country.  If you are ignorant of their country and culture, you create the impression that you're boorish or, worse, that you don't care enough about them to spend a little time learning about their country and culture.  That's not the kind of impression that leads to a good business relationship.  A point to remember is that in Europe and most other countries, business is done based on relationships.

Cultural differences and language barriers are common excuses for insensitive behavior.  To create favorable relationships requires a willingness to listen, understand and accept the differences.  Approach going abroad as if you were invited to your boss' home for a party, assuming you would like a raise or promotion.  If you enter a host country with this attitude, you'll be sensitive, well dressed, bring an appropriate gift and take the time to learn the customs and behaviors that will make you a gracious guest and leave them with a favorable first impression.  

Doing your homework before you visit any country is essential, once there here are some general pointers:
  • When visiting a country, know the name of their president or prime minister, their political system, language spoken, official name of the country and the collective name of its people. 

  • Most Europeans shake hands with everyone present when arriving and again when leaving.

  • Be prepared to receive and to give a lighter less firm handshake in many countries.

  • Always remove your gloves before shaking hands (something President Bush forgot to do this past year and it was noticed worldwide),

  • Never shake hands with one hand in your pocket. 

  • In Europe, don't use first names until you are explicitly invited to do so by your host.  We consider using first names as friendly but Europeans definitely don't.  Using first names that quickly makes them feel uncomfortable. 

  • Attempt to speak the language of your host country, even if you can only manage a few polite phrases.

  • Never use slang terms, idioms, sports analogies or colloquialisms, for example: "I was tickled to death. We've got you covered.  I got a kick out of it." 

  • Never slap people on the back.

  • Gift-giving customs vary from country to country, make sure to observe them. Keep this in mind: Never be tacky, violate tradition, or send intimate items.


Mercedes Alfaro is president and founder of First Impression Management, a national business etiquette training and consulting firm, helping individuals to excel in all aspects of their professional presence, online at www.firstimpressionmanagement.com or at 561-395-0256

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