Global Business Basics

Dec. 21, 2004
Accept varying attitudes toward odors and hygiene -- rudeness smells worse.

The globetrotting executive can expect to deal with numerous problems and difficulties. Unfamiliar languages, customs, food, and behavior combine to make travel challenging and enervating. But which of the annoyances bother international travelers the most? As mentioned previously in this column, we recently conducted a survey of business travelers in American Way, the airline magazine of American Airlines. Those participants who did business outside their native country were asked if they experienced any awkward or embarrassing moments in 10 different areas. The area's were ranked from 1-10, most frequent to least frequent:

  1. Translation blunders or difficulties (or working with translators).
  2. Hygiene.
  3. Titles, name order, and informal terms of address (for example, using first names instead of last names, or using the informal pronoun "t" instead of the formal "usted" in Spanish).
  4. Introductions and first impressions.
  5. Clothing and dress.
  6. Gestures.
  7. Proxemics (the distance people stand apart).
  8. Written communications.
  9. Giving or receiving gifts (for example, presenting the wrong gift).
  10. Eye contact (for example, being made uncomfortable by stares).
We have dealt with some of these issues in previous columns. However, we have not discussed hygiene, which is obviously high on the list of travelers' concerns. The most common problem mentioned had to do with encounters with people who, simply put, smelled bad. Because this was a survey of passengers on American Airlines, it was not surprising that most of the anecdotes were about countries serviced by that carrier. Europe was mentioned most frequently. Here is a sampling of the comments, as well as the gender and country of origin of each commentator: "I was interviewing a fellow for the position of managing director of our subsidiary in France, and the candidate arrived smelling of body odor and bad breath." -- male, Canada "I have experienced physical discomfort (stinging eyes!) in the presence of some Europeans (Belgian and French) due to body odor!" -- male, USA "Don't go clothes shopping in Germany on Saturday morning. Saturday night is bath night!" -- male, USA "When traveling on a train in Italy overnight, people took off their shoes, and our cabin became unbearable with the foot odor. I tried to open the window but the other passengers would close it claiming they would catch cold. I gave up and slept holding a bottle of Guerlain cologne to my nose all night!" -- female, USA However, complaints also were directed toward citizens of the U.S., such as this note from Central America: "Americans are not as clean as they think!" -- female, Honduras Is there a lesson in all of this? There's not much you can do about the hygiene of others, except to recognize that different cultures have different attitudes toward odors. In the U.S. we have been taught that the natural smell of our bodies is unpleasant. Our advertising industry has relentlessly hammered us with this message to sell us soap, deodorant, perfume, air fresheners, and other hygiene products. This, quite simply, isn't the case in all countries. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to change our attitudes toward odors when we go abroad. The olfactory centers of our brain are older and more primitive (in evolutionary terms) than, for example, the areas that control our vision. When we look at something, we tend to interpret the data intellectually. But smell is more likely to evoke a primitive, emotional response. Nevertheless, the polite businessperson would never comment on the scent of another executive or anyone else in a public setting. Perhaps it would be easier to tolerate the odor of others if you realize you, too, might be offending noses. Obviously you should tend to your own personal cleanliness as best you can. But realize that as soon as you step out of the shower, your body begins to emit odors. These odors depend upon several factors not exclusive to how often you wash or change your socks. For instance, diet can affect odor. The average U.S. executive may be perfectly groomed, but smell "differently" abroad because Americans consume so much red meat. Many Asians, who traditionally eat little red meat, have commented on the smell of North Americans. Also, using cologne or strong-smelling grooming products (popular in the U.S.) can make you stand out. Be careful not to use too much scent; it can be objectionable to others (including people with multiple chemical sensitivities). Perhaps we should remember while traveling that others don't necessarily share our visceral revulsion toward specific odors. After all. . . Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; Si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi. (When you are at Rome live in the Roman style; When you are elsewhere live as they live elsewhere.) - St. Ambrose (c. 340-397)Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison are coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business In Sixty Countries; Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World; and two new books, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America. For more information on Getting Through Customs seminars, online database, and books, telephone 610/725-1040; fax 610/725-1074; or email [email protected]. Or write to Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Visit the Getting Through Customs Web site at

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