Business Protocol in a Global Context

By H.H. Makhlouf, PhD
Guyana Journal, May 2009

In a book, entitled “Riding the Waves of Culture”, the Dutch consultant and author, Fons Thompenaars, distinguished between the universalists and the particularists in cross-cultural business relations. The universalists believe that people are people, regardless of their cultural differences; hence, there should be one universally accepted set of behavioral expectations in business relationships. They view the issue from the standpoint of following the right way (their way) or the wrong way (everybody else's). The particularists, on the other hand, adhere to a pragmatic viewpoint, believing that cultural differences matter and should be expected to impact the conduct and expectations of businesspersons. To the particularists, therefore, there are no right ways or wrong ways in the manner in which business persons deal with each other across cultures. There are only different ways that need to be understood and respected. They appreciate the need for businesspersons to learn about the differences and similarities in business protocol in order to avoid embarrassing situations.

Lillian Chaney and Jeanette Martin defined protocol as “courtesies expected in official dealings”. David Robinson, the author of a book on business protocol, also defined it as “the unspoken rules of conduct that determine how people expect one another to behave”. Implied in these definintions, is the expectation that when business persons from other countries go to Rome, they should behave as the Romans expect them to behave. In other words, they should behave as the Romans do. Reality dictates, however, that businesspersons should understand and respect the business protocol in a host country but should still have some flexibility in excercising their personal judgement as to whether to adhere or not adhere to every aspect of a host country's business protocol. If businesspersons in certain cultures greet each other with a warm embrace and a kiss on the shoulder or the cheek, it wouldn't offend the hosts if the greetings are limited to handshakes and polite smiles. In dealing with Asians, who greet others by bowing sometimes at a 90 degree angle, reciprocating with a slight bow and a firm handshake wouldn't be seen as an insult or taken as a sign of disrespect of the Asian business culture. In other words, when you are in Rome, you don't always have to do or behave as the Romans do, but you shouldn't condemn the Romans for doing things differently. If the Asians prefer to have their soup as one of the last courses served, one shouldn't look upon this practice from the standpoint of right versus wrong, or the usual versus the unusual ordering of items in a multi-course meal.

International business literature provides many examples of the 'dos and don'ts' in international business protocol. Following are a few that confirm the particularists' argument as it relates to differences in international business cultural and behavioral expectations:
  • The Russians do not consider it proper to smile in the initial stages of a business relationship. According to Losif Sternin of Veronezh State University: “it is not customary to smile while…conducting serious business.” Therefore, the absence of smiles during serious negotiations is not to be construed as a sign of unfriendliness or lack of interest.
  • The Japanese, Arabs, and other nations from high context cultures do not like to be rushed in closing a deal. They don't appreciate the impatience of businesspersons from low context cultures.
  • In many cultures, sharing a meal is an important part of building a business relationship. To the French, having a long lunch in the middle of negotiations, or extended meetings, is not considered a waste of time even if no business is discussed.
  • If a Japanese businessman invites a visitor to dinner in order to play golf after working hours, he considers this to be personal time in which business is not to be discussed.
  • The Japanese do not usually entertain in their own homes, but if they do they expect their guests to remove their coats before entering the house, and their shoes after entry. During the meal, one may be expected to sit on a mat in a kneeling position; and if chopsticks are used, they shouldn't be left vertically in a serving bowl after the completion of the meal.
  • The main meals are not the same in every culture. In the Latin American and Continental cultures, for example, lunch is the main meal, and it may take place between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m.
  • In China elaborate banquets are likely to be arranged at the beginning and/or the end of negotiations. At these occasions, it is considered proper to exchange gifts.
  • Gift giving is often an important aspect of protocol. However, gifts of food, beverages, or flowers are often risky. Sometimes the reaction of the host depends on the kind of gift chosen. In Japan, a gift of flowers is usually limited to courtships, illnesses, and funerals, while in Mexico, sending flowers (excluding marigolds) ahead of arrival to the host's house is quite proper. To many in India, a gift made of leather is not appreciated because of religious prohibitions. For the same reason, gifts of liquor or wine are to be avoided in Muslim societies.
  • In Korea, gifts are exchanged at the beginning of negotiations. In Gernmany and some Latin American countries, this is usually done at the conclusion of negotiations. For the Japanese, gifts are to be given in private, and are not opened by the host in front of the guest.
  • Losing face has serious implications in many cultures. Negotiations may be tough, but they are not supposed to result in clear winners or losers. Tom Peter once observed that “frank discussions between a Dutch manager and a Chinese subordinate about the latter's shortcomings was taken by the Chinese worker as a “savage indictment and led him to commit suicide.” George Grayson, who authored “The United State and Mexico Patterns of Influence”, is of the opinion that Mexicans are influenced by “bruised diginity that gives them a generally defensive negotiating style, particularly when dealing with Americans.” Due to cultural or historic experiences, therefore, Simeon Kerr of the Financial Times advised international businesspersons to follow the golden rule: “Never, ever lose your temper with (foreign) officials…Always show respect, especially with elders.”
  • Visiting businesspersons should avoid open criticism of the hosts' political leaders, system of governement, customs, and religious practices.
  • The practice of introducing oneself and exchanging business cards is not the same everywhere. Introducing oneself using a title like “Mr.” (as in I am Mr. Smith) is considered arrogant in some cultures. Handing out business cards with one hand, or by placing them on the table, is considered rude by the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. In these cultures, business cards are to be presented with both hands to each memebr of the visiting team, starting with the most senior. It is advisable to print the cards in two different languages, preferably including the hosts' language
  • Because many people have difficulty remembering, let alone pronouncing, foreign names, it is generally acceptable to re-intorduce oneself in the first few negotiating sessions or until the names become reasonably familiar.
  • In introducing others, one should know which name to use, and which name comes first. In some cultures, like the Korean and Arab, women maintain their maiden names when they are married; hence, one uses the maiden names when they are introduced.
  • In many cultures, timing and punctuality are less important than meeting obligations. Under such circumstances, appearing late for an appointment should not be construed as lack of interest in the matters to be discussed.
  • If drinks are served, one should expect a toast from time to time. To the Slavs, toasts should be taken seriously, and one should maintain eye contact when toasting.
  • In interacting with interlocutors from other cultures, it is always advisable to avoid obscure vocabulary and unnecessary acronyms. In an article, published in USA Today, Del Jones advised American businesspersons not to use sports vocabulary in discussions with their foreign counterparts. She wrote: “Americans pepper their speech with endless array of baseball, basketball, and football phrases…Business is so rife with the jargon that it makes foreigners wonder what Americans are smoking when they throw baseball in a business context, like throwing smoke, late innings, step up to the plate, can of corn, all bases covered, we're under par, etc. Even the Europeans who play these sports confess that they don't have a clue what those phrases mean in a business context.”
  • In Japan, business protocol requires leaving the seat that is farthest from the door (known as Oku) to the honored guest. In a restaurant, the host should be the one to sit with his back to the door.
  • Cyberspace etiquette (netiquette) has added to the complexitiy of international business protocol. The informality that often characterizes email may be offensive in intercultural communications. One golden rule in netiquette is: Never speak ill of anyone.

Lack of attention to protocol can cause a negative first impression that would be hard to erase. Both the intended and unintended messages, reflected in what businesspersons say, do, or don't do, make a difference in building and maintaining satisfactory business relationships. It would be naïve, however, to expect even an experienced international businessperson to know all the similarities and differences in business protocol across cultures. The least that should be done is to consider learning about protocol an essential component of the preparation for every international or intercultural encounter.

About the writer: Dr. H.H. Makhlouf is the chairman if the Department of Management, Hospitality, and Graduate Studies at the University of the District of Columbia.