How's Your Foreign Image?

Dec. 21, 2004
Mimic local customs to make a good first impression.

We speak of love at first sight, or of taking an instant dislike to someone. Even though we realize intellectually that appearances can deceive, we often have strong emotional responses to first impressions. Consequently, most of us learn how to make good first impressions in our native countries. But how do we present a good image in a foreign country, where we may not be aware of all the rules? In most of the U.S. and Canada, good first impressions in business settings start with the following:
1. Be punctual.
2. Dress conservatively.
3. When introduced, approach to a comfortable distance.
4. Look the client in the eye.
5. Offer a firm handshake, lasting about three seconds.
6. Smile. However, these rules are not necessarily the same around the world. In our last column, we spoke about the relativity of time. In some countries (notably Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan) absolute punctuality is demanded in business settings. In others (such as most of the Middle East and Latin America), punctuality is not traditionally a priority--appointment times are considered approximate. So, while a 30-minute delay in a meeting in the U.S. would be insulting and frustrating for the participants, that delay might not have the same impact in Saudi Arabia. Dress is important everywhere, but local standards of dress vary. Fortunately, you can't go far wrong with standard North American/European business dress. The dark blue or gray suit for men (and its equivalent for women) conveys a sense of professionalism. Of course, in some countries--especially in hot climates--wearing a suit will mean that you are overdressed. In such climates, the businessman you meet may be wearing an open-necked shirt. (This is standard dress for some industries in many countries as far-flung as Israel, Nicaragua, and Malaysia.) Women must be far more sensitive to all aspects of their attire. For example, even if they have the requisite dark suit in Japan or Oman, the neckline of the blouse should not be too deep. The wrong blouse generates all sorts of non-relevant attention in cultures that either are not acclimated to the physique of many Western women, or are prohibited from that kind of "exposure" by virtue of their religion. When you're ready to meet a business prospect for the first time, you may give your business card to a secretary or receptionist, who will (eventually) usher you into the office or meeting room. Or you may be introduced by a local contact. Either way, when you approach the client, you must consider what is a comfortable physical distance for a greeting in that country. The "comfort zone" around people varies from culture to culture. In North America, we generally stand close enough to shake hands without stepping forward. For average-sized men, this will be somewhere around 2 1/2 feet apart. But Asian cultures often keep a greater distance apart, while people in Latin and Middle East cultures tend to be closer. (In some Middle East cultures, it is said that proper distance is "close enough so you can feel the other person's breath upon your face!") The important thing to remember is not to offend a client by backing away if he or she stands "too close." This is easier said than done. More than one North American visiting Brazil has instinctively backed away from a local client--whereupon the client steps forward to close up the distance--sometimes as close as six inches away. Then the American steps back again, and the local closes up, and before long a slow-motion chase is in progress. Eye contact is another culture-specific issue. In the U.S., someone who won't "look you in the eye" is assumed to be untrustworthy. A steady gaze is expected during an introduction. However, in many countries, such as South Korea, staring is considered impolite or challenging. A North American who tries to maintain continuous eye contact with a Korean may appear hostile or aggressive. Also, a person in a subordinate position is expected to avoid direct eye contact with a superior. As a general rule, if you sense that your eye contact is making someone uncomfortable, look away. Intermittent eye contact is acceptable in most of the world. Then comes the major physical part of the greeting. Do you shake hands? Bow? Or even exchange kisses on each cheek? Fortunately, Western business traditions have become familiar throughout the world. Even in countries where the preferred greeting is some form of bow, a handshake is usually accepted from Western men. Often, the handshake is combined with the local greeting, leading to a series of bows and handshakes. And, to the relief of many Western men, they are unlikely to be subject to kisses on the cheek from another man in a business setting. Such greetings are usually reserved for relatives and close friends. (These rules are somewhat different for businesswomen, since many cultures frown on any physical contact between men and women in public. We will deal with these complexities in an upcoming column.) It is also useful to remember that handshakes differ around the world. The hearty, hand-pumping handshake is a North American/Northern European tradition. In most of the world, handshakes are more like handclasps. The "grip" is never tight, and there is little or no pumping action. In Asia, it may also last up to 10 or 12 seconds. This is longer than the North American handshake (which typically averages about three seconds). North American men often shy from these overlong, "limp" handshakes. Last, in North America it is customary to smile during a greeting. This expresses that you are genuinely pleased to meet the other person. However, smiles of greeting are not universal in all cultures. Many cultures--even in Europe--consider business to be a serious undertaking, making smiles, humor, or laughter out of place. It is especially important not to keep a smile on your face for extended periods of time. A continued smile can send an unintended message. For example, the French assume that someone who smiles in public for no apparent reason is either condescending or simple-minded. And in parts of Asia, smiles cover up embarrassment, disgust, or even fury. So do your best to adopt the visage of the locals. If they are slow to smile, you should do the same. It is often said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Understanding the local customs gives you an edge in making that first impression a favorable one, and we all need every advantage we can get.

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