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First impressions: first impressions in international business can make a world of difference.

What an opportunity! A roomful of prospective clients worth more than the GNP of most small nations. The guest speaker, a sophisticated well-traveled investment banker from the United States--we'll call him John Dough--is introduced.

He strides toward the podium, confident and ready to dazzle his audience. He plans to start by thanking his host and cracking a scintillating joke before driving home some concise points (supported by the best media presentation money can buy).

Looking out at the illustrious gathering, he quells a few butterflies, takes a deep breath and steps up to the microphone. What could go wrong? It depends on where he is.

BACKGROUND CHECK. Dealing with the special circumstances of different cultural backgrounds is no easy task in situations like this. Start with John Dough's appreciative opening line to the host in his first country, Germany, Does he use the host's correct title, get his or her name in the right order and pronounce it smoothly?

Or was it more like: "First I would like to thank Ernst for that wonderful introduction and for the opportunity to address such a distinguished gathering ..." Some of the eyes in the front row may have rolled with that one. Bringing out Director X's first name in front of everyone may be acceptable in the United States, but it is usually not good form in Germany, France or Northern Europe.

As part of his extended international business trip, our speaker is also scheduled to address a group of investors in Russia. Well prepared for his appearance, he begins his speech by addressing his hostess Mrs. Anna Nikolevich Mendeleva. He refers to her as Mrs. Mendeleva from the podium, even though she has invited him to use the more familiar "Anna Nikolevich" otherwise.

Although he knows Russians have a fine and ironic sense of humor, he refrains from starting with a joke. He is in banking, and too many banks have failed for his audience to find anything funny about this subject. Because he wants to win their trust, he makes every attempt to establish direct eye contact with his listeners. Knowing that Russian negotiations are often stormy, he allows emotion to creep into his voice, something he will avoid in most other parts of the world.

Our speaker then visits Latin America on his international tour. He knows titles are very important here and people should generally be addressed by their title alone, such as "Professor" or "Doctor."

However, when a surname is called for, he occasionally finds himself confused. Most Hispanics have two surnames, one from their father, which comes first, followed by one from their mother. Sometimes the two surnames are separated by a "y" (which means "and" in Spanish). Only the father's surname is commonly used when addressing someone verbally. For example, Senor Sixto Ortiz Martinez would be called Senor Ortiz, and Senorita Ana Maria Gutierrez y Ramos would be Senorita Gutierrez.

In Latin America, our speaker does open with an amusing, well-chosen anecdote: "My brother works for the government of the United States of America. He was involved in getting approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, better known by its acronym NAFTA. Last year there were discussions about Chile joining NAFTA. Of course, once NAFTA expands outside North America, the name has to be changed. They considered dropping the initial 'N' and just calling it the American Free Trade Agreement, or AFTA. This seemed like a good compromise until someone pointed out that the word "afta" means cold sore in Brazil. There are a lot of things we'd like to increase intra-hemispheric trade in, but herpes is certainly not one of them!"

This was a good anecdote for several reasons. While it's funny, it does not denigrate anyone or anything in Latin America. The speaker also increased his importance by revealing that his brother works in government. Finally, he uses the full and proper name of his country, the United States of America. Just saying "United States" is not sufficient in Latin America, since other countries also use that name, including the United States of Mexico.

SERIOUS BUSINESS. A week later, John Dough heads for Central and Northern Europe, where he will appear before groups of executives from large companies. In Germany, following his very proper thank-you to the host--even using a few words of German--our speaker attempts to "loosen things up" with a joke. Unfortunately, this does not have the desired effect.

In this part of the world, business is serious, and humor is not usually part of presentations and negotiations.

What they do respond well to are preparation, planning, knowledge, experience and competence. Every assertion must be backed up by data.

The Middle East, John Doughs next destination, presents him with quite another set of cultural rules.

Speaking to a group of prospective clients in Saudi Arabia, he does not begin his speech with ebullient, sweeping claims to his own or his company's expertise and success, which does not play well here. A sense of modesty is appreciated. To Muslim Saudis, success comes from God, and their statements or promises will often be qualified with inshallah ("God willing.").

This seems like a rather complicated set of variables to consider, but John Dough and his company have invested a lot of time and money to get to this point. Understanding how to make a memorable first impression gives him an edge--and in today's competitive world, don't we all need every business advantage we can get?

The author, based in Newtown Square, Pa., offers seminars and training on cross-cultural business etiquette, customs and negotiation techniques. The second edition of her book Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands will soon be available through Material is Copyright 2005, All Rights Reserved, by Terri Morrison.


Invocations over drinks are customary. The English word for this custom, "toasting," derived from the tradition of dipping a piece of scorched bread into a tankard of beer or wine to improve the taste of the drink. Different countries offer interesting variations on toasting habits.

The traditional Swedish toast is skal, which means "drinking vessel" and is derived from the word for skull. Early Scandinavians often used a human skull as a drinking cup! A hundred years ago, toasting was a complex business. Today, just be sure to look the person you are toasting in the eye.

Many Russians are convinced of their ability to drink foreigners under the table. Traditionally, a bottle of vodka is placed on a table, and the drinking is not finished until the bottle is empty. The most common toast is za vashe zdorovye ("to health").

The Chinese typically offer toasts with maotai, a sorghum-based liquor. If you don't want to drink the maotai, excuse yourself from the toast with a logical explanation (e.g., you suffer from an allergy, you are on medication, your religion precludes alcohol, etc.). Nevertheless, everyone at a table is expected to join in a general toast, even if with a soft drink. There are several toasts in Chinese. Gan bei ("Dry your cup!") is the most popular in Mandarin, while Yam sing (also "Dry your cup!") or Yahm pal are popular in Cantonese.

The Japanese view drinking as an important way to unwind. No one pours a drink for himself or herself; someone else at the table fills your glass. The standard toasts are kanpai ("dry cup!") or banzai ("May you live a thousand years").

--Terri Morrison
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Title Annotation:banking
Publication:Recycling Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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