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Body language for international business

When conducting business in a foreign country or with people from a different culture, knowing the nuances of that culture will only help cement a positive working relationship. Andrea Murad investigates.

Your first impression is very hard to undo, and it starts with your greeting. Using the right protocol to introduce yourself can sway a decision made about you (and your trustworthiness).

“In a business environment, you can – by mistake – inadvertently insult someone if you’re not familiar with the cultures and norms of where that person is from,” said Vicky Oliver, etiquette expert and author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions.

“What’s normal in your culture may not translate well in another person’s culture,” she said.

Etiquette is a code of behaviour that helps others feel comfortable. When it comes to handshakes, the firmness of your grip, whether to use one hand or two, how close you stand, who reaches out first and the duration are important subtleties.

While a good host may be forgiving for etiquette mistakes, there aren’t always free passes. “Sometimes we damage our credibility enough so that we hamper our ability to build trust,” said Mercedes D’Angelo, Director of Business Development at Cultural Awareness International. “We can set back business objectives because of it, and the other person will never let on.”

No matter where you’re from, you want to follow the custom of the land you’re in, but to be aware of the other person’s customs. Gestures are not an international language, and here’s how to make a great first impression.

Your grip

The firmness of your handshake is important and varies from region to region. A tight, firm grip is appropriate in some cultures, but never too aggressive.

Depending on where you are, handshakes can be a delicate and gentle thing or they can be firm, which could have positive connotations like assertiveness, confidence, forthrightness and an interest in meeting you, said Mercedes.

Make sure that a firm handshake is acceptable before using one as in certain parts of the world, this can be taken as aggression and isn’t appreciated.

Firm handshakes are the order of the day in Russia, and greetings for second meetings may also include a hug. It’s also custom for Russian men to kiss their guests on the cheek.

Who drops the handshake first?

“Seconds are a long time in a handshake,” said Mercedes. As a general rule, two or three seconds is appropriate.

In South / Latin America, it is thought that a generally firm handshake is appropriate, and in Brazil it may linger longer than you expect. If this happens, do not pull away – sometimes the handshakes will include a touch on the elbow or forearm.

One or two hands

Two-handed shakes are generally reserved for informal greetings, but not always. “This can be very common in parts of Africa,” said Terri Morrison, etiquette expert and author of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands. “When done correctly, it is a warm and sincere means of non-verbal communication.”

In Kenya, a two-handed shake (clasp the wrist as well) is appropriate for elders and key business people.

Kisses

Kisses are more casual, but depending on where you are, people may greet each other with one, two or three kisses on the cheek during formal business meetings.

“If someone gives you a kiss on the cheek, you have to give them a kiss on the cheek,” said Vicky. “Once the etiquette has been broken, in a way, you need to reciprocate. After somebody kisses you on the cheek they’ll do that the next time and you won’t go back to a handshake.”

In Egypt, two kisses on the cheek is common between same genders.

Eye contact

“In certain cultures, when you shake someone’s hand, you’re more or less expected to really look someone in the eye, but in others, that direct eye contact may be considered insulting and aggressive,” said Vicky.

Bowing

In South Korea, Japan, other parts of Asia, bowing is used as a greeting, but whether to bow depends upon the situation and how familiar you are with the protocol of bowing, said Terri.

How long and low to bow depends on the person you’re meeting, occasion and country. Deeper and slower bows are more formal and respectful. When bowing, where to look and your body position are important – these differ depending on the country you’re in, occasion and your gender.

A light handshake can be appropriate in Asian business matters, but in certain countries such as South Korea or Japan, a bow is appropriate. Handshakes are also not a common greeting in Taiwan, instead preferring a head nod or slight bow, whereas in Thailand, people bow with their hands together at chest level.

Gender Differences

Depending on where you are, women may not greet in the same way as men.

“Before shaking someone’s hands, if you’re meeting a woman, see if she goes to shake your hand… If not, bow or nod your head,” said Mercedes.

In Nigeria, women will tend to offer their hand first, and in Singapore and India, handshakes between men and women are less common.

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of CA North America.