A former EO Global Board President, Shelby is the president of Practical Protocol and Conexus Global Services, two businesses that help entrepreneurs and their employees enter international markets through training, consultation, cultural coaching and introductions. E-mail Shelby at
The world-class business executive— every entrepreneur wants to hold that title. It’s a prestigious label that highlights one’s ability to understand and acknowledge cross-cultural nuances like a pro. Is there a magic recipe for mastering international cultures? Yes. However, the magic is not in the tactical kisses, bows, handshakes or business card exchanges. The answer lies in four simple truths: Courtesy, Dignity, Respect and Trust.
Courtesy: Think greetings, manners and fairly superficial interactions. When it comes to first impressions, showing a lack of courtesy can stymie further relationship development.
In my experience, minor faux pas can be overcome as long as the discourteous behavior is perceived as an honest mistake with no deliberate intent to insult. That said, performing a “simple act of courtesy” may not be so easy from a crosscultural standpoint. For example, in many parts of Asia, a hearty belch and the noisy slurping of soup compliments the host. In other countries, it’s considered a hallmark of bad manners.
It’s important to note that what works in one country doesn’t always work in another. For example, when I was working for the US Department of State, I was offended because men in a foreign delegation refused to shake hands with me. At the time, I thought this was incredibly rude! I later learned that these men were simply trying to be courteous. As it turned out, their culture dictated that a woman must offer her hand first if she wished to shake. It can be confusing trying to remember all of the cultural courtesy rules, but it just takes some intentional studying.
Dignity: As leaders of business, we never want to give away our dignity through careless or embarrassing behavior. More importantly, we should never strip someone of their dignity. In Asia—particularly Japan—this is known as “saving face.”
Once, when I was working for former US President Ronald Reagan, I was in heavy negotiation for him to participate in a Tokyo summit. During this time, I noticed that our counterparts were quick to say “yes” or nod in agreement, which I thought was unusual. I later found out they were simply being polite. They wanted to avoid embarrassing us or themselves by saying “no” outright. As part of the president’s advance team, we had to adjust to our host’s negotiation style to reach our objectives and avoid conflict. This experience taught me that adapting to cultural nuances is a critical part of embracing new cultures.
Respect: Chronic patterns of discourteous buffoonery will eventually be interpreted as a lack of respect— a far more serious offense. I once briefed a company whose incoming delegation members were Muslim. As such, I knew they did not consume pork or alcohol. When it was time to go to lunch, the company’s chief sales person relegated the duty of choosing the lunch menu to a subordinate without supervision. As a result, we wound up walking into a buffet that included ham, salami and other pork products. This was completely disrespectful to the client.
Did the relationship between the company and its delegation fizzle because of the bologna? Perhaps, though it didn’t help that the sales person consistently exhibited a self-centered focus. He was more worried about making a sale than building a relationship by paying attention to the guests’ needs. His discourtesy turned into disrespect, and the relationship never recovered.
Trust: To succeed in international business, there must be a level of trust. In my experience, I’ve found that most cultures verify before trusting someone. Take the outwardly warm and friendly cultures of Latin America— they have a “wait and see” approach. They spend time with potential customers through social activities to find out what makes someone tick— by developing trust, not exploiting it. In order to do business across borders, you must be trusted. In order to be trusted, you must invest the time to know one another. Regardless of your location or destination, trust is the foundation on which long-lasting relationships are built.
There are many things to consider when embracing new cultures, but I have found that these four truths are universal in their application and critical in their institution. By being courteous, staying cognizant of others’ dignity, maintaining respect and building trust, any entrepreneur can become a savvy international businessperson.