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Marketing in Europe: know the business customs.

Many persons tend to think that basic manners and principles of etiquette are the same everywhere. They do not realize that what may be an appropriate custom or practice in one society is not necessarily so in another. It may instead offend local susceptibilities or be considered ill-mannered or insulting.

From an exporter's point of view, simply knowing about different aspects of other cultures is not enough. What is important is understanding whether or not one's actions may directly or indirectly conflict with the foreign country's cultural patterns.

This article focuses on a few customs in Europe that exporters in developing countries should be aware of when making business contacts in these countries. The examples given are only indicative of the types of situations with which an exporter may be faced. As practice varies considerably from one country to another, a foreign business executive approaching a given market should examine the particular local practices in some detail.

Business correspondence

In principle, letters to a company or business executive in Europe should be written in the language of the recipient. Exporters should therefore make an effort to find someone qualified to translate their letters into a suitable commercial text in the foreign language concerned if they themselves do not speak and write the language fluently. Each country has different practices concerning the form of business correspondence and these should be followed, preferably by seeking assistance from professional services such as translation bureaus or the country's official commercial representatives in that market.

Business letters should be appropriately addressed. Likewise the opening and closing of the correspondence should follow the customs of the particular country. For instance, when a letter is written to a person whose name is not known, the letter should begin with the appropriate salutations. In the United Kingdom, for example, if it is not known whether the recipient is male or female, the usage is "Dear Sir / Madam." The French equivalent is "Monsieur, Madame."

Related to this are decisions on whether to use the personal or professional title of the individual concerned, whether to write the person's title in full or abbreviate it and whether to use initials instead of the forename(s), or no forename at all. It is normal practice in most European countries to write to a company or a department of a company, rather than to a specific person, except at the senior management level. If the letter is written in French, the family name is omitted in any case in the salutation. In the United Kingdom however the family name is often included and the accepted practice in this case is "Dear Mr. X" or "Dear Mrs. X." The title "Ms." can be used if the woman's marital status is unknown or if this is the preferred form. Other countries also follow their own specific usage.

Each country has its own convention regarding the salutations at the end of a letter. In English an individual may write "Yours sincerely," while a company may say "Yours faithfully." The practice is somewhat different in some of the other European countries, where closing phrases may be much longer and more varied, depending on the situation. Again, professional translation services should be conversant with practice in such matters.

A British custom when corresponding with a senior government official or an old acquaintance is that of personalizing a letter. This takes the form of writing the opening and closing salutations "Dear X" and "Yours sincerely" by hand. This practice would not, however, be used by a foreign exporter writting to a business contact in the market.

If trade literature is enclosed in the letter in the sender's and not the recipient's language, a summary or explanatory notes in the receiver's language should be included.

Use of the telephone

Using the telephone effectively in Europe is important particularly for making initial contact.

Telephone directories in the various European countries are sometimes organized in a manner that is unfamiliar to visitors from other areas. For instance the order in which names are listed may vary from one country to another because of differences in the alphabet. In German a 29-letter alphabet is used, and names starting with modified vowels or an umlaut (a, o and u) may be listed under A, O or U, or may instead appear as the last characters of the alphabet after Z. Numeric entries in a telephone directory such as "123 Taxi" are usually, but not always, mentioned before alphabetic entries.

Language differences may cause confusion when spelling a name or a word over the telephone. For instance "g" in French is pronounced like "j" in English, and the French "j" like the English "g". Similar examples of cases in which confusion may arise occur in other European languages. A verbal spelling out of names or addresses letter by letter should therefore be double-checked with a written source when in doubt.

Misunderstanding can also occur over the telephone in the way numbers are expressed in the different European languages. In French and English, for example, 21 is verbally expressed as "twenty-one" in the respective languages, i.e. units of ten are put into words first, followed by the single units. The German language operates in the reverse -- "one and twenty." Exporters for other countries should keep this practice in mind when taking down addresses or other numbers over the telephone.

Ways of expressing time also differ. To be asked to a meeting in Germany at "half nine," for example, means at 8:30, not 9:30.

Unfavourable impressions can be created through a lack of awareness of telephone protocol. The way in which telephones are answered varies from country to country. When a person in Germany answers the telephone, for example, he or she usually gives the family name only, without the forename, for instance Schmidt. In Italy the telephone is usually answered with the word "pronto," meaning "I am ready," or "I am listening." In France the reply is often "allo" (hello) or simply "oui" (yes). Other countries also have their own particular practices, and a foreign visitor should be aware of these in order to handle business by telephone smoothly.

The manner in which telephone calls are "filtered" also differs from one European country to another. For instance whether or not a business executive's telephone operator or secretary can be asked to make an appointment or pass on a message to the executive is not the same in all places. The official commercial representative of the exporter's country in that market should be able to provide advice on this and other such matters.

The tone of voice on the telephone is as important in business dealings as the impression made during a handshake. If the telephone connection is not clear, an exporter calling Europe from a distant location should re-dial the number, rather than shout, which may be interpreted by the executive at the other end of the line as discourteous.


In Europe arrangements for appointments should be made well in advance and, if time permits, confirmed in writing.

In most European countries it is essential to be punctual for appointments, arriving if possible slightly early, and to adhere strictly to the agreed timetable. If the hour or day of the appointment must be changed, the visitor should telephone the host's office immediately. An appointment broken without due notice, or late arrival for a meeting, generally has an adverse effect on future commercial relations.

Finding the location of the business office sufficiently ahead of the fixed time is an important element in adhering to the schedule. Various techniques are used to describe the location of office buildings in a European city. One is the conventional numbering system, i.e. No. 1 High Street or No. 1 63rd Street. Another is identifying a building by a name, i.e. White Hall on High Street. Problems arise when the only indication available for the company to be visited is a post office box. Any missing details on the address should be checked before the day of the appointment.

Foreign business executives visiting Europe may be confused by the way in which different floors in a building are referred to. In most European countries the street level is called the "ground floor" while the floor above it is the "first floor." In the United States, in contrast, offices on the street level are on the "first floor," and this terminology is also used by many of the large U.S. companies located in Europe that occupy an entire building.

Starting discussions

Making a good initial impression is important for getting a business appointment off to the right start. In all European countries it is customary to shake hands on meeting and often also on taking leave. Business visitors should make a point of doing likewise, since it may give offense not to do so. In Europe both men and women shake hands.

The frequency of handshakes varies from country to country. They are for example much more prevalent in Belgium than in the United Kingdom. In certain countries handshakes are firm, sometimes aggressively so.

Handshakes might be accompanied by a verbal greeting, to which one should make a similar reply.

In a few of these countries the practice of kissing the hand of a lady on introduction is still in vogue, especially among certain socio-economic groups. (The hand is not actually kissed, but the gesture is made.)

When an exporter is invited into an executive's office in Europe for the purpose of business, the time spent on "small talk" is usually brief, especially in northern Europe. In general the practice in Europe is quite different from that in many other countries in which it is considered impolite to start talking business immediately.

In European countries the concept "time is money" tends to prevail. The executive hosting the meeting probably has less direct interest in the visitor than in the subject matter to be discussed. This is very different from the practice in societies in which considerable time is often spent in social discussion to get to know the other party better, before a decision is made on whether or not to enter into a business relationship.

Negotiating techniques

Since the business visitor is the foreigner, in theory if not in practice, discussions should be in the language of the country in which the negotiations are taking place. If the visitor does not have a working knowledge of the local language, he or she should offer to provide an interpreter for the discussions.

Culture operates both visibly and invisibly to influence the substance of negotiations and the performance of the eventual contract. It is therefore necessary for an exporter to have a knowledge of both the foreign culture and the negotiating process in that culture. This includes familiarity with the spoken language and with body language (that is, typical gestures); knowledge of the country's social customs and formalities; awareness of the degree to which subtleness or, inversely, directness is current in negotiations; understanding of the use of time in formal talks; knowledge of the degree to which compromise is acceptable for reaching a final accord; understanding of the decisionmaking process in the counterpart company; and awareness of the sanctity of oral versus written contacts.

To make full use of their skills, negotiators should try to learn as much as possible about the persons with whom they are holding talks including why those individuals were selected to conduct the discussions. If the talks are handled by a team, culture-based conventions may define the roles of each member of that team. For example the person who is speaking most frequently may not necessarily be the most senior on the team.

In most European countries, as mentioned above, business executives look upon time as a scarce resource and conduct their meetings accordingly. In countries in certain other parts of the world, however, the tendency is not to hurry business negotiations, because taking time to discuss an issue is equivalent to acquiring knowledge. Foreign business visitors should consider this difference in developing their negotiating tactics. In the same vein, relatively long periods of silence in the middle of negotiations are not usual in Europe, although this practice is well known in some other cultures. Most Europeans will not realize that such a move is part of the bargaining process. It is thus advisable for foreign executives to tailor their approach to the usual European practice in this respect.

Differences also exist on the question of making eye contact, which can affect the way in which trust is built up between the negotiating partners. It is customary in northern Europe in particular to maintain eye contact with the person with whom one is conversing or negotiating, based on the presumption that someone who can be looked straight in the eye can be trusted. This is disconcerting to persons from other cultures in which direct or prolonged eye contact may be interpreted as disrespectful or hostile. Exporters should therefore be aware of this practice to avoid being confronted with it unexpectedly.

Word usage can vary considerably even among those expressing themselves in the same language, which can have consequences in negotiations. This is especially the case in English. The English spoken in the United Kingdom is sometimes very different from that spoken in the United States. Not only do words vary for a given idea or object (for instance a "lift" in the United Kingdom is an "elevator" in the United States), but identical phrases can have different meanings in the two countries. For example in the context of business talks, when an American negotiator requests that certain key points be "tabled," the meaning is to suspend discussion of those issues. For British negotiators, however, the phrase means to bring the topic up for discussion, exactly the opposite of American usage.

Other culture-related factors come into play when a business agreement is reached. In some European trades it is still the custom to shake hands to signify that an accord has been concluded. In certain situations the insistence on a written agreement may cast doubt on the honesty of the other party and could even result in the abandonment of the agreement just finalized.

Frederick Marsh is an international marketing consultant in the United Kingdom. As part of his advisory services he conducts workshops and executive briefings on business customs. Mr. Marsh has carried out a number of ITC technical cooperation assignments in export marketing.

Determining who should signal the closing of discussions depends on whether a timetable was previously agreed upon and if the subjects to be covered have been dealt with and the business concluded. In general business visitors should initiate their departure. In European countries if visitors overstay their time, the executive hosting the meeting may give subtle signs that the talks are completed, and these indications should not be ignored.

Forms of address

Each European country has a distinctive way of verbally addressing business contacts. Visitors should always adopt the more formal mode of address, unless invited by their host to use first names.

It is advisable to acquaint oneself with the customs and subtleties in the different European countries relating to the use of personal titles, academic titles and professional titles. The designation "Doctor" is used by many professions, for example medical practitioners and those with an academic title. It may also be applied, however, as a more general honorific, for example in Italy, if one is not certain about the professional status of the person.

Conventions on how persons should introduce themselves vary greatly from one European country to another. In some, only the family name is presented, while in others both the first and family names are provided, and in yet others the title and the name. In Spain people generally have two family or surnames, the last one being the mother's name, for instance Sr. Jose Lopez Garcia. When addressed either in correspondence or personally, an individual with two family names uses only the first of the two, for instance Sr. Lopez.

In Europe first or given names are not used freely among those not well acquainted with each other. This is very different from the practice in North America, where people address each other by their first names after only a short acquaintance. While the English word or pronoun "you" does not denote or imply any degree of familiarity, quite definite customs and conventions exist in many of the other European languages that determine when, for example, in French the familiar form "tu" can be used instead of the more formal "vous," or in German "Du" instead of "Sie."

Calling cards

Business cards are essential for any marketing trip to Europe. They should be carefully prepared, as they may influence the first impression that an exporter makes on the European counterpart and they also serve as a tangible reminder of the business contact for follow-up after the initial meeting. Professional titles on business cards should be explicit. Titles that are difficult to define should be avoided.

If a visitor comes from a country in which calling cards are not printed in Romanized characters, but, for instance, in Chinese or Arabic, the cards should have a Romanized translation on the reverse side.

When an exporter calls at an office for the first time, or is not particularly well known to the person being visited, he or she should present the receptionist or secretary of the executive with a business card.

Cards are also usually exchanged at the start of the meeting, and this should be initiated by the visitor. No European conventions exist regarding the specific method of presenting one's card.


Most European business executives are formal in their dress, unlike the somewhat casual dress code in the business sector of certain other countries. The appropriate attire for male executives visiting these countries is a suit and conventional tie, and for women executives it is also a two-piece suit. Dress codes do however vary according to the type and status of the business. The location of the company also influences the degree to which formal dress is required, for instance whether it is headquartered in the capital or the provinces. Some of the formalities in Europe are slowly changing among younger executives, so the style of clothing worn in certain business environments may be more relaxed. Nevertheless senior European executives perceive an informal or untidy appearance in business counterparts as a negative signal that could prevent the visitor from being taken seriously.

Business gifts

In Europe giving business gifts at the initial meeting is usually looked upon as a lack of understanding of European business ethics. This may be puzzling to persons from countries in which gift-giving is the norm, and where failure to present an appropriate gift may not only have an unfavourable impact on future busi-relationships but even indicate a visiting executive's lack of prestige or status. The offering of presents is closely tied to cultural patterns and has been the subject of much research. What is considered as a gift, on the one hand, and what may be construed as a bribe, on the other, involves careful thought.

Office hours and holidays

The working hours of companies in Europe vary according to the type of business, the national and local regulations, and also the practice of the different business communities. In some European countries business executives are available for meetings early in the morning, while in others not before 9:30.

In almost all European countries government offices, banks, commercial firms and factories are generally closed on Saturdays and Sundays. It is also increasingly difficult to make appointments on Friday afternoons.

Government agencies and most commercial businesses are likewise closed on public holidays. In addition to official days that apply to the country as a whole, regional public holidays may also be observed in some parts of a country. European countries have holidays with both fixed dates, such as New Year's day, which always falls on 1 January, and those with movable dates, for example Easter Monday.

During the main annual vacation period, when many companies operate with only limited staff, business is much disrupted. Depending on national customs, the European holiday season is from mid-June to mid-September, but each country differs slightly. There are also vacation periods associated with religious days or secular festivals, when it is difficult to arrange business appointments, such as the days before and after Easter, and the week between Christmas and New Year's day.


Can one be over cautious in trying to cope with all aspects of cross-cultural communication? This is a fair and reasonable question. If one becomes too preoccupied with the apparently limitless possibilities for misinterpretation of behaviour and pays too little attention to the reason or substance of the visit, it is obvious that one's priorities need reappraising. Ultimately common sense must prevail.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Trade Centre UNCTAD/GATT
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Author:Marsh, Frederick
Publication:International Trade Forum
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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