Things are different the world over. Westerners are an ethnocentric bunch, but really, who isn’t? Really, we in the west are rather tolerant. Try digging into a burger during a business lunch in India or ordering a celebratory round of drinks after closing a deal in Saudi Arabia and see how quickly your clients turn into former clients. Our world is incredibly connected and ‘global economy’ isn’t just a catchword. As unlikely as it may seem right now, you may just find yourself needing to know that when you exchange business cards in China and Japan, you better do it with both hands and an approximation of reverence.
You may be thinking, ‘how important is it to know foreign business customs? They’ll adapt to us.’ You are right. They will try to be polite. And you should, too. Of course you may not ever find yourself doing business outside of your comfort zone. Nevertheless, you may find yourself educated and entertained by this list of strange business practices from around the world. You may find yourself intrigued. You may even find yourself wishing to purchase a ticket overseas just to see for yourself.
Something to consider: Are we ourselves weird? We work 40 hours a week and consider it long. That’s pretty short for much of the world. We enjoy casual Fridays and griping about our jobs. Try that in Germany! We often stay late to finish our projects, or talk about business outside of work hours – in Switzerland when the clock strikes five the day is done right from the factory floor to the cubicle door. Are we so normal, here in the west? Food for thought.
5. Never Address a Superior By His Or Her Name In Japan
Japan was thrust from the imperial age straight into the industrial age, and their feudal period was not what one would describe as placid. One cultural holdover from the pre-westernization of Japan (and the Japanese are nothing if not iconoclasts!) is a downright obsession with hierarchy. The actual language you speak depends upon the rank, relative to you, of whom you are addressing. Calling your friend Robert-chan would be appropriate if Robert were a child. The suffix ‘san’ denotes an equal or subordinate. And what if Robert were your boss? Well, if you were me you would call him Mr. Editor, Sir.
The proper way to speak to your superiors in a Japanese workplace is to describe them, military-like, by their title. Frosty!
4. Be Careful – You May Have Already Struck A Deal In Spain
In some countries doing business in good faith is the norm, with a deal being as official as it gets with nothing more than a handshake and a verbal agreement. Contracts will usually follow, but sometimes not for a long time after the business is already being conducted. The epitome of this sort of relaxed way of doing business is Spain, where a casual conversation and tacit agreement over drinks can very easily be construed as a business agreement. Someone quotes a price, you say it sounds good, you shake hands thinking you’re just saying goodbye and a week later you get a call asking for payment. Uh oh.
In Spain, rules are, as a rule, ignored until all other courses of action fail. It may sound like the way two drug dealers might conduct themselves, but in the land where the rain falls mainly on the plain, people like to keep things friendly and casual.
3. Never, Ever Turn Down Tea In The Middle East
Israel is the exception to this rule, but in every Islamic country if you are offered tea, for the love of all things good, accept it. If you are not thirsty, let it sit. But do not refuse it. To do so is the epitome of impoliteness and you will find that your business trip has been for naught. Your hosts will become icy, your guide will cringe in horror and you will simply not do business.
Until you accept tea – with gratitude – you will not be a trustworthy individual. If your host understands that you are Italian or American and therefore slightly barbaric, or he wishes to be worldly, you may be graced with coffee. The same goes for that. Accept it. Make small talk. Let business begin.
2. And What Is The Price For Me? Always Barter In Israel.
It’s really not a stereotype: Jews and Arabs haggle and not just with each other. The quoted price on an item, or a gross of items, in the Middle East is never, ever the final price. Would you buy a car for the sticker price? Of course not. You know there’s some swing room. Apply that same mindset to a business transaction in Israel and you’ll make out well.
This may seem rude to someone from a country where the price is the price but it’s expected in Israel. There isn’t always flex in the price of an item or items, but those situations where there isn’t is by far the exception, and not the rule. If you want to know for sure you’re getting the best price, make three attempts. The markdown you get can be as much as half and the vendor will still be satisfied.
The opposite is also true. Don’t be offended if a customer from Israel continuously tries to get a discount out of you. Most do understand American business practices – and in the big cities those practices are taking hold – but old habits die hard.
1. Prepared To Party Like There Is No Tomorrow In Japan
Forget everything you think you know about the stoic Japanese business man… for just a few hours. Yes, Japanese salary men are expected to spend an extraordinary amount of time at work or with their colleagues at the expense of family life – but what you don’t know is that a specific portion of that time is expected to be spent getting silly. When the boss takes the team out and says, “Let’s suspend formality,” it is seriously party time.
Japanese companies commonly purchase bottles of expensive liquor to be held at special business night clubs, in the company’s own special locker, to be used for recreational meetings. These clubs are nice. The men are waited on hand and foot. Jokes are told. Karaoke is sung. Good food is served. It’s actually expected that one member of the team get so intoxicated he must be carried home. Customarily this fellow will be ranting about how the entire company is doomed. Understand that when a Japanese business team cuts loose it can be epic. When you have that much steam to blow off things can get moist.
Furthermore, upon completion of a big task or on specific dates it is traditional for a Japanese executive to be given bonus pay that he must use to enjoy himself… and he has to give receipts. And change.
Leave it to the Japanese to mandate fun.