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Venturing to an international business meeting?

Business handshake

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As a number of our clients when they first start working with EEN have had very little or no experience of international business experience I thought it would be useful to share some of my experience of working with international clients and suppliers.


I cannot stress enough that if you are visiting a country for the first time to conduct business, then speak to someone from that country if possible. They will be able to give you insider knowledge on the cultural norms for business interactions, including networking and business meetings.  If this is not possible then research the following for the country that you will be visiting.  This sounds obvious but it is surprising how many people don’t think of it or because they have travelled to a country for a holiday that their understanding is sufficient.  The two main areas I would recommend you consider, besides your business offer/need are physical cues and language.   


Be mindful of physical cues


Eye contact


Whether you look directly for eye contact and how long you hold can vary greatly.  For example in Japan prolonged eye contact is considered impolite, in the USA not giving eye contact can give the impression of not being trustworthy.


Hand gestures


Think about what you are doing with your hands, you could be offensive without realising.  In Malaysia, for example, bashing a closed fist onto open palm is essentially swearing.   


Levels of physical closeness


In countries where the relationship aspect of business is very important, generally, a greater degree of physical closeness is the norm. Examples of this are seen in countries in South America and the Middle East, unlike us Brits, who would consider it an invasion of space.


Levels of tactility


Find out whether you would be expected to shake hands, kiss cheeks (how many times and which cheek first), pat backs or refrain from touching someone altogether.  You should never have cross-gender physical contact in any Middle Eastern country, but in France, it’s considered impolite not to kiss cheeks the first time you see someone in a given day. 


Where you sit in the room


In countries where hierarchy is important, for example, India, Japan, China or Korea, where you sit in a business meeting is fundamental as it demonstrates your level of seniority.  Please don’t make the mistake of sitting in the position where the most senior person from the other organisation would.  As this would tell them you think you are more important than they are.


Remember, that when people are communicating in their second language nonverbal cues can take on an even greater role.


Think about language


Keep it simple. Don’t use idioms, buzz words, business slang or acronyms


While the use of extensive vocabulary may gain you a certain level of respect and buzz words or business slang may demonstrate you have work in a given industry or field for some time, the aim here is to be understood clearly.  A personal example that always springs to mind when I explain this: A British to Spanish client relationship, the Spaniard’s English, German and Catalan were impeccable but the Brit would regularly use the phrase ‘time is of the essence’ which would get a quizzical look from the client.  Given that phase historically comes from English contract law, how could it be expected that the Spanish client would know its meaning.  


Speaking slower but without coming across as being patronising


Being Welsh I have had to learn this one myself, my first role after university was at Airbus UK and I regularly was asked by my French, Spanish and German colleagues to repeat myself due to the speed I would speak at.  Being mindful of this and after some practice, I think most people can master this.


Finally, will you need a translator?


This could seem an expensive option but if the meetings are of strategic importance then the cost may well be worth it as you may not get a second chance.


If there is one thing to sum all of this up, it is that you should be mindful that what is acceptable in one country can be totally inappropriate in other.

How can EEN help? 

Come and speak to us, internationalisation is at the heart of what we do and all of our advisors have experience with international business markets and doing business in other countries and continents.  This is also reflected in the diverse range of international colleagues we have working at EEN across the UK, so there are plenty of experts from different countries who are at the end of the phone.  In addition to this, we have great colleagues who work in the other 59 countries that EEN is based and who has been a great source of local knowledge for a number of my clients.  Between all of us at EEN we can make sure you have the knowledge to facilitate successful international business meetings.

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