Earlier this year, I was in Buenos Aires teaching advancement strategies for women. I greeted them in Spanish and shook their hands. I thought I was acting appropriately. When the first one leaned in and pecked me on the cheek, I was quickly reminded they don’t shake hands in Argentina. They kiss.
Thankfully, these women were understanding and forgiving. But, as the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a great first impression. In fact, research shows, people decide whether they like you within the first seven seconds. Seven seconds!
And room for blunders is much larger when you’re meeting someone in a global context. What’s expected or accepted in one country could be a faux pas in another. For example, it's completely normal and even considered polite to chew with your mouth open in China. In Germany it’s considered an abomination. These mistakes could have dire consequences when trying to form partnerships and close deals.
So, here are five ways to ensure you’re making a great first impressions when doing business around the world:
Know how to say hello
Don’t make the mistake I made. Do research ahead of time to find out what’s appropriate when meeting someone for the first time. While you should greet people with a kiss on both cheeks in Brazil, kissing is a big no-no in India and Britain, for example. In Japan, you may want to bow, in the Middle East, men and women shouldn’t touch, in Europe, you’ll want to at least shake hands. You can always observe people as you travel to your destination to see what’s the norm.
Dress to blend in
Don’t dress to impress or standout. Instead, aim for subtle elegance. Wear dark or neutral colors -- think Hugo Boss or Jill Sander -- minimal accessories, and lose the bling. Classic, high-quality leather shoes, bags and watches are always in style. Give yourself enough time to ensure your hair and makeup are done properly and your clothes are clean and pressed.
Use their names
When you use someone’s name, it shows that you’re interested in them and creates a sense of familiarity. Of course, in some countries and cultures, using names with titles is appropriate. For example, in Japan “san” is an important ending to names, showing utmost respect. In Germany, doctor titles and last names are considered most polite. Do your homework and if you’re unsure, always err on the side of formality.
Know how to eat
What to order, how to order, and how to eat it can be a sticking point for many traveling business people. Stick to what the locals recommend, try a few new things, and most of all mind your manners -- or at least the local manners.
Drink away the day
It may be that your colleagues in China, Russia, or France expect you to go out drinking after work. Happy hours to all night partying are a normal part of business in many countries. Decide how much you can handle without ruining the party.
When doing business abroad, being confident and warm is a universal way to make a good first impression. But studying up on cultural norms is a way to make it a lasting one.
Melissa Lamson, founder and president of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today's most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross-cultural communication. Her experience spans two decades and projects in more than forty countries for clients such as LinkedIn, IKEA, MTV, Porsche, and SAP. For more information, visit her website at lamsonconsulting.com.
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