They can track flights, dictate strategic plans, monitor corporate sales, check soccer scores, chat with their kids, and keep an eye on the weather — all with hand-held devices. They are making significant inroads on the global economy  throughout Asia, the Pacific Rim, and the Middle East, as new markets and new opportunities arise. Yet, many arrive at key destinations missing a critical component that could add to the success of their mission: an understanding of the cultures and customs of their host country.

"They can track flights, dictate strategic plans, monitor corporate sales, check soccer scores, chat with their kids, and keep an eye on the weather — all with hand-held devices."

Transcending national borders

This sense is fostered in part by the internet, which is often the preliminary way distant colleagues set the parameters for mutual trust prior to a meeting. Yet while the internet and global business opportunities are bringing record numbers of people together, the need to learn more about the countries we visit and the people we meet is stronger than ever.

The meeting

Every business trip begins with a meeting. Whether it is seventeen people sitting around a board table, or the first face-to face meeting with a potential client, that meeting is based on trust and consideration. That consideration starts with an appreciation of a country’s customs and traditions. A careless gesture or a simple misunderstanding can sometimes convey an unintended message and undo months of work.

A simple greeting can be the beginning of an important ritual. In Spain, it is customary to shake everyone’s hand, from oldest to youngest. In Egypt, and other Muslim countries, shaking hands is not automatic, and the rules get more stringent for men meeting women. In Russia, shaking hands over a threshold is almost an insult. In Nigeria, greetings customarily include inquiring after one’s health and well-being, and listening to the answers with empathy.

“There is a strong sense that the urgency of commerce has spawned a new common business culture that transcends national borders and supersedes local customs.”

The gift exchange

Even the exchange of gifts is governed by protocol. In Spain, a high quality gift, like brandy or whiskey, is appreciated. Yet alcohol, or anything made of pigskin (like an autographed football), cannot be given in a Muslim country. In Singapore, the gift-giving ritual depends on the nationality of the recipient. It is in poor taste to give anyone of Chinese descent a clock, handkerchiefs or flowers  as they are associated with death and funerals. The color white is for mourning in some Asian cultures. Receiving a gift has rules too. It is considered bad taste to either give or receive anything with your left hand in Nigeria. In Singapore, a gift may be declined three times to show the recipient isn’t greedy. (And you may also be expected to decline a gift three times.) Your location will determine if a gift should be opened at once or unwrapped in private.

The meal

There are equally strong protocols regarding meals. As business travellers venture into more distant and rural locales, they may be confronted with delicacies and dining rituals which represent a great personal compliment, regardless of the what the traveller may be accustomed to or prefer. It counts if you know the proper way to compliment a host for a great meal. Sometimes a particular gesture, like eating everything on the plate conveys the highest compliment, where leaving even a few grains of rice conveys something else. A traveller should never assume that accommodations will always be made out of respect for their country of origin, and that these accommodations  always represent a compliment.

Knowing the protocols

It is unlikely that a breach of social protocols would quash a multimillion euro contract or jeopardize a large sale, but knowing how to conduct yourself in another country can give you a strong edge. Knowing these protocols is a great equalizer and may enable a business traveler to be accepted more easily in certain social circles. Most travelers think nothing of checking local advisories with regard to security, the quality of drinking water, or the local cash exchange. Learning how to communicate with your colleagues and business hosts should be a priority of the highest order.