What to do when…meeting clients from overseas

You’ve laughed about their idiosyncrasies and their spelling mistakes. But now those favoured clients in Japan are coming to the UK and it’s your job to keep their business. So how do you make a great impression – and more importantly, steer clear of any fatal faux pas?

Well, for a start, use your head. You wouldn’t entertain a delegation of Tibetan monks with a knees-up in the local hostelry, so find out a bit about the culture of your visitors before they arrive. It’s not just polite, it could save you from some big mistakes. For instance, the Chinese are not a physically demonstrative people and hugging, backslapping and other touchy-feely behaviour could deeply embarrass your Chinese guests.

It’s not just big gestures that need to be made. There are a myriad of small errors you could commit if you aren’t concentrating fully; hand gestures do not have universal meaning, and some Asian visitors might find your well-meant thumbs-up something of an insult. In China, putting your hands in your mouth is considered offensive – so you need to take control of that habitual nail-biting for the duration of the stay. And be particularly careful with your jokes – humour is another perishable that doesn’t always travel well. Sometimes it’s better to be Mary Whitehouse than Paul Whitehouse.

Introductions are a keystone in the building of relationships and they must be carefully and skillfully negotiated with visitors from overseas. Make sure you know the right form of address before introducing them to others – for instance, Chinese surnames precede given names, so Ma Kuangyuan would be addressed as ‘Mr. Ma’. You should also remember that clients take priority in the introduction formula, so you should introduce people to them, not the other way round – ‘Mr Kountoris, may I introduce Mrs Jones, our chief technical officer?’

You should dress to the expectations of your guests – dress-down Friday may make life comfortable for you, but difficult for your visitors who have brought a suitcase full of pinstripe. Also take care what you wear: sometimes wardrobe choice says more than you mean; in Hong Kong, for instance, a white suit symbolises mourning. On the other hand, remember that those who have travelled a long way to do business with you will want to experience a different society to theirs. When you take your guests to dinner, don’t take them to a restaurant boasting cuisine from their homeland – at best, the food will be a pale imitiation of what they are used to. Show them the best your own country has to offer – which in England means go French. Be mindful of dietary restrictions before the question arises; don’t take your Indian counterparts to an all-you-can-eat grill.

Don’t be taken aback by different levels of personal space – an American might not need very much and you shouldn’t take his or her forwardness as an affront. And never write on a business card – it is considered offensive to professionals in many cultures, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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