Last updateFri, 18 May 2018 4pm



Learning the Context of Local Customs

vmfall12 customs1By ANETA STEPHENS

Understanding the “whys” of a culture enriches the experience of traveling to different countries and can greatly improve the chances travelers have to be successful in business transactions.


Knowing the proper way to handle a business card when it’s offered in another country is a useful tool; but learning the culture of a country with which you do business goes ways beyond such mannerisms. Travelers to other countries, especially to countries with very different cultural bases, need to learn more than the socially accepted etiquette or how to avoid embarrassment.

They need to learn and understand the thinking that underpins a society’s accepted behavioral norms because this understanding can affect the entire approach to doing business in another country and can be instrumental in guiding business strategies for that country.

vmfall12 customs2A plant tour in Suzhou ChinaMORE THAN A MANUAL

A naïve rehearsal of codes of behavior learned from a manual or memorizing a series of perfunctory mannerisms may get a traveler through an isolated business meeting or negotiation. However, many missed opportunities arise for those who do not learn the motivations, values, ethics and beliefs that underlie the customs.

While the world is constantly becoming more integrated through better communication and travel that links countries once far apart in customs and thinking, such links are only superficial. This greater shared understanding may have increased tolerance of differences, but it has not erased the differences. In particular, the new world of better understanding has not substantially changed the underlying culturally influenced beliefs and values that determine how an individual, a company and that company’s message are received. Indeed, even the degree of sensitivity each culture has for other cultures differs from place to place—merely talking about such differences in insensitive ways can be received with varying levels of approval.


TIP: To learn more about international business interaction principles, business travelers can use the resources and knowledge of their local channel partners and representatives. Spend time with them to learn about the differences; accompany them during sales calls, and ask them ahead of a meeting what is expected; observe the interaction during meetings, noting how people conduct themselves, and adapt as appropriate.

Given that the scope of this article is limited by length, we can’t hope to cover the globe—much of what needs to be done must be done by individuals going to specific areas. The relevant background information needed is very detailed and unique to each country, and often to sub-regions or social status of the individual parties. Numerous examples of cultural idiosyncrasies can be found on the Internet, in travel literature and within manuals put together to teach about different cultures.

Some generality does exist, however. For example, gestures involving the fingers are best avoided everywhere, because they are particularly susceptible to a broad variety of undesirable interpretations. Also, although this does not apply to all cultures, doing things with the right hand (as opposed to the left) is a good default to use. Shaking hands is now common practice in most of the world, but it wasn’t always so and still can be subject to gender differences in some areas. Visitors also should be aware that other than that handshake, it is preferable not to touch another person until learning the given culture and circumstances where touching is appropriate.

Generalities also exist within regions. An example is the business card mentioned at the beginning of this article. When meeting people from China or Japan, travelers should know that cards (and most things that are being passed from one person to another) are given and received with both hands, and attention to the card itself is a sign of respect. A business card should be looked at, then placed in a business card case/holder, rather than stuffed in a pocket.

Another example is forms of address. Various forms of addressing someone verbally or in writing are acceptable. In some areas, the preference is first name while in others it might be last name. There are also differences in appropriate clothing, tipping, dining, smoking, eating, personal space, religion, time and punctuality, among many considerations.

Cultural expectations also can vary greatly from one country to the next. For example, gifts are expected in some countries, while in others they are seen as “bribes” to be avoided among strangers. Given the potential for misunderstanding, gift giving requires thorough research. Also, in the past decade, the world’s international organizations have moved dramatically to establish strong policies in favor of transparency and against corruption and bribery.1


While it is tempting to use the universal practice of simply showing respect, this presupposes that what passes for respect in one culture will also appear respectful in others.

One universally accepted way to demonstrate respect, however, is by learning a few basic phrases of the language, while ensuring that pronunciation is good enough not to alter the meaning, and learning how to address someone. The basics of language should suffice for most situations, such as greetings (when to use hello rather than good day), please, thank you, you are welcome, good bye, it was nice to meet you, etc. But pronouncing guests’ or hosts’ names correctly in their native language is a minimum standard for all visits.

For North American visitors to other countries, it is worth repeating often that addressing others is different in virtually every country outside of North America. While we tend to be informal here, in most places, the habit of calling people by their titles or by their last names (complete with Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.) is much more common. As well intentioned as it may be to address a contact in Europe by his or her first name to invoke a feeling of familiarity and friendliness, visitors there ought to resist the natural temptation. The notable exception is in dealing with colleagues or others who already know the person very well. However, the important distinction to learn is this: there are situations, times, and places when it is strictly necessary to use a formal address even for people otherwise acquainted on a first-name basis.

vmfall12 customs3Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, Abu Dhabi, United Arab EmiratesUNDERSTANDING

Lack of ability to convey meaning precisely goes beyond the sometimes humorous situations that occur—it is considered impolite in some cultures to ask for reiteration or explanation, which leads to some sticky situations.

An example would be a situation where a business partner from a foreign country asks a host (no matter how politely phrased): “…did you understand what I said?” The answer might well be “yes” even after the guest tries to follow up with due diligence by stating: “…and will you do what we agreed upon and by the time we agreed upon?” Again, very politely and without any sign of doubt, the answer might be “yes” to show respect. The final outcome, however, may well be that the requisite understanding was not present, and consequently the desired result is not obtained.

This is one situation where it is best to bring in a speaker of the local language who is thoroughly familiar with local customs. He or she could clearly convey back to the visitor both the meaning of the conversation and the intent of what is to take place.

Equally important is how official translations are handled: They need to be made only by highly qualified translator firms. It is also worthy to note that in some areas of the world (China, for example), the contract you are intent on translating may need to be handled by a government-sanctioned entity to be valid and legal, and to meet local ­standards.


An important consideration when hosting people of a different culture is to ensure they understand what they are getting into when the host tries to give the guest a valid foreign experience. Those guests might also try to understand beforehand what is to come.

For example, Chinese hosts often try to make the visits of European or North American people more interesting and pleasurable by taking them to venues where genuine Chinese food is served. These hosts, however, should not be shy about explaining the food, including specifics about the presentation. Serving pork sections with a generous layer of fat and skin with pig-hair still attached may be received with enthusiasm by people naturally interested in other cultures and willing to try different things. But many visitors prefer food more like what they order at a Chinese restaurant in their home country. In such situations, both the hosts and visitors may need to venture outside their comfort zones or at least openly discuss expectations and options available.

Another cultural difference when it comes to dining is who is expected or even allowed to pay for a meal. This issue is subject to local customs that vary from country to country, as does the proper manner and amount of money to give as a tip in a restaurant, hotel and elsewhere.

One particular incident in which dining habits showed cultural differences involved a visit by a business group from Europe to China. The visitors believed they were quite obliging as they ate from a Hot Pot (a large pot served at the table from which all diners extract chunks with their chop sticks). In Europe, people generally eat only from their own dishes so they felt they were being accommodating by sharing in the communal dining. However, it became somewhat awkward when the Europeans proceeded to use their spoons to consume the liquid as well as the meat portions from the shared container. In general, only the meat is shared.

Such incidents can be made into a mutual learning experience for both visitors and hosts if the hosts offer to guide their guests through the meal etiquette associated with each course. On the other hand, the European visitors also could have studied up on various food customs in China ahead of time or even asked on the spot what was the right way to partake of the dish.


Taking photographs of people, unless you work for National Geographic, is often not a good idea without understanding what you’re doing. An example was a recent visit to rural China where toddlers were running around without clothes or diapers. The problem was that because they had no diapers, certain parts of their anatomy were not covered. The visitors proceeded to take photographs of the cute children so they could share their cultural experience with friends and family back home. However, their action was greeted with evident disapproval by the locals, who removed their children from sight.

A good rule of thumb in this case, as in many cases, is to err on the side of humility, caution, politeness and discreetness. A visitor can still end up doing something wrong, but may get credit for having good intentions.

As previously discussed, understanding the reasons behind a practice (what the culture is and how it came to be) can benefit beyond merely avoiding a faux pas. Breaking down cultural barriers can enable collaboration, sharing of ideas and conducting commercial business with companies, organizations and people outside your local markets. Sharing a relaxing tea time with hosts before commencing business negotiations, for example, is not done for ceremonial reasons. It is intended to give both parties time to get to know each other and to establish a relationship that will set the framework for the eventual business transaction.


Aneta Stephens is director of Global Marketing Communications for CRANE ChemPharma Flow Solutions & CRANE Energy Flow Solutions. She is a member of VMA’s Communications Committee. Reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


1Useful links on this topic are: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/fcpa/; Organization of American States (OAS), www.oas.org; Organisation for ­Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), www.oecd.org; The European Union and the ­Council of Europe, www.coe.int, United Nations, www.un.org.

vmfall12 customs sidebar1A Velan booth receives prominence at a nuclear event in China.As the World Turns …

VMA Members Travel to Unfamiliar Places


With globalization has come an increased need for cultures to intermingle. For business travelers, that can often place them in unusual and occasionally uncomfortable situations. However, such travel can also contain rich rewards as travelers pick up schooling from the best source: meeting the people of a country or region face-to-face. Here are some examples from VMA members.


Sometimes the adventures involved with international travel have to do with the road that leads there and what’s encountered along the way.

Alejandro Garcia, regional manager of distribution products in Latin America and the Caribbean, Cameron Valves & Measurement, tells what it was like to travel to a jungle in Ecuador.

“It was challenging from the start having all the vaccinations necessary to enter a territory that belongs to the local Ecuadorian tribes,” he begins. He was there to visit an international oil company, but the rules that apply to travelers often are set by local and state policies, and arrangements are often made to protect business visitors.

“To get there, you have to fly from Quito to El Coca, and take a river ride for a few hours on a boat with five military people who have heavy weapons for security and to protect against the risk of kidnappings,” he said.

But even though Internet and phone communication is very limited, the terrain is rough and the journey long, “It is a great experience. I’ve returned three times and every time I’ve gone, I’ve seen and learned something new because of the travel environment,”

he says.

Joe Kelly, general manager – EAME, Distributed Valves, Cameron, tells of a long, slow journey to an oil facility in Pakistan.

“I can’t remember exactly where it was, just that it took a very long time on a road that went through rural villages,” he said. At one point, the car went through a marketplace where “we saw a sheep carcass on a market stall that was black. I didn’t understand why until somebody flicked a stick and the flies dispersed,” he recalls.

Peter Seto, director of sales, ITT Valves for Asia Pacific, recalls a visit to a mine in Mongolia.

“From the capital of Ulaanbaatar, it’s a six- to seven-hour drive to the site, but along the way we had to stop for the night. We did not stay in a typical hotel, but rather a Ger, which I think is the most unique hotel I have every stayed in,” he recalls. A Ger is a traditional dwelling for the nomads that is a series of tents over a wooden frame, which is then covered with wool.


Although the hospitality of the people in the area is often one of the most pleasant aspects of travel, it can also present some tricky situations.

Among the places that Mike Hendrick, vice president, Sales and Marketing, Conval, frequently travels is China. He tells of one particularly memorable dinner.

“We ordered a lobster, and they brought it out alive. Because I was the sponsor, they asked if it was okay. It was big and healthy so I said it was fine. They then proceeded to slice up the tail and people starting eating sections of it … while the lobster was still kicking,” he says.

“That was interesting enough, but when they finished the tail, they took the rest and chopped it up and put it into the soup, shells and all,” he explains.

The American business people didn’t know quite how to handle that, and were politely spitting shells into their napkins, while the Chinese, “spit their shells out onto their plates,” Hendrick explains.

He also talks about a long car trip to a power plant in a remote section of China. The trip itself was about four hours.

“There were four other people in that car, and they were all smoking and talking on their cell phones the entire way. It was winter so the windows were closed. Then, when we got there and went to lunch, every place setting had a pack of cigarettes and a can of beer.”

Those practices showed him how different the cultures are at present, but it was what happened after lunch that showed him just how remote that four-hour drive had been.

“We were standing outside and a teenager rode by on a bike and stared at me so hard, he almost turned over the bike. He’d never seen a Westerner before,” Hendrick explains.

Often, once a visitor gets used to a local custom, they begin to look forward to it.

Wolfgang Maar, executive vice president of International Sales and Overseas Operations, Velan, refers to a common tradition in the Middle East.

“In the U.S., you go into a meeting and everybody exchanges ‘how are you’s’ for about two minutes. But in the Middle East, I know that we will spend about 20 minutes before a meeting drinking tea and eating fruits,” he explains. “That’s a very nice way to start to talk to the people that you’ll be doing business with,” he explains.


While the getting-to-know you phase of a trip to the Middle East is pleasant, it also illustrates a major difference in thinking. One of the hardest cultural differences for Westerners to face abroad is the different concepts people have of time.

Mark Shipp, sales manager – Europe, North Africa, Caspian & Russia – Distributed Valves, Cameron, says that Libya was a great culture shock for him.

The heat everywhere in the Middle East is hard for foreign visitors, but “travelling there (to Libya) was the easy part,” he says. What’s not so easy is that “meetings are constantly interrupted by religious needs or people not arriving or being available at agreed-upon times,” he says.

To the people in the Middle East, prayer time is more sacred than a business meeting and even the malls clear out while people go to a prayer center to worship.

In some areas of the world, the schedule for a day’s work is much different. In North Africa, for example, “people normally eat [evening meal] at 10:30 p.m., which is hard to get used to. They frequently leave a meeting for prayer, and many employees have two or three jobs they need to get to,” he says.

Russia is another example.

As Wolfgang Maar explains, “When I have a Russian meeting scheduled for 9, I am there two to five minutes before the hour. But I’m normally the only one there. No one shows up until about 9:20,” he says.

But this illustrates for him one of the main lessons people need to learn in dealing with different areas of the world.

“It’s sometimes painful for people in Western parts of the world who are so used to keeping their tight schedules, but you can’t get upset. They aren’t treating you differently than anyone else. It’s just the way they are, and you need to learn to cope with it,” he says.


One of the main ways that people traveling to new areas learn the culture is to talk to someone there—and “there” doesn’t mean just the country itself, but rather each region.

In the Middle East, for example, you are working not only with people different than a home country might be, but also different types of people within each country of the Middle East.

“That area of the world is a real melting pot with numerous cultures,” Joe Kelly says. “The best way to deal with the various styles is to find a local partner who understands Western ways and can ‘translate’ the meanings in a way you can learn.”

For people like Wolfgang Maar, who are constantly on the go, the learning process in dealing with new areas never ends.

“It’s critical to know the rules that apply to where you’re going but even if you spend hours on Wikipedia or studying references, you’ve still got a lot of little nuances to learn. Many people don’t know that in Greece, for example, if you show someone the inside of your hand like you would if you were waving, it means bad luck,” he explains.

Besides reading, research and talking to contacts, Maar has another main source of information.

“I talk to the taxi drivers at the airport. They can tell you just about everything about the rules of the area you’re visiting,” he says.

Mike Hendrick adds that “in most of the places I travel, I have contacts there already through our own offices or previous visits from me or others. Before any visit, however, I talk to those contacts about what’s taboo, where the minefields might be and what the expectations are, both in dress and mannerism.”

No matter how well prepared, ­however, there are always little things that can trip you up and those nuances apply to Europe as well as more exotic areas. In Scotland, for example, Hendrick discovered that people attending a conference in that country are not like those in the U.S., who dress casually during the summer. He went to a meeting where he was a speaker dressed in a Westerner’s golf shirt and casual slacks only to quickly discover he was out of place—everyone else was in suit and tie.

No matter where he goes, however, he tries to keep in mind the one lesson deeply ingrained in him from his ­travels.

“In many parts of the world, it’s hard to travel as a Westerner when you see how some countries have very rich and very poor. But you also see that when you take government out of the picture, it doesn’t matter where you go. People are all the same. They care about family and they care about providing for that family,” he says.


Genilee Parente is managing editor of Valve Magazine. Reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..





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