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Business Etiquette Worldwide Do's and Taboos

Written by Julie Moline

You can get a headache navigating the local customs of foreign countries. However, it's well worth the effort.

Here's what NOT to do in places around the world.

You were just trying to say, "Got it, thanks!" But when you flashed the OK sign, the owner of the restaurant in the Ukraine looked like you just shot him. Maybe you've traveled the world ten times over and can speak five languages fluently. But if you don't know the local gestures, you could look like a tasteless brute - and wouldn't that be horrible! So avoid making a bad impression - and possible bodily harm - by following these basic guidelines.

1. Never demonstrate how big or small anything is in Latin America by measuring the space between two index fingers. That gesture refers to male genitalia. In Russia, the American "OK" sign (thumb and index finger touching) is rude for pretty much the same reason.

2. In Islamic countries, any display of the sole of the foot is considered highly insulting. A British professor giving a guest lecture at a university innocently did so and triggered a student protest and newspaper headlines denouncing British arrogance, according to Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway, authors of The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union, and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America (MacMillan Spectrum).

3. In Paris, make sure you've had a bathroom break before you head to a meeting. It's considered "mal eleve" (bad form) to excuse yourself during a meeting.

4. You may have a terrible cold during a meeting in Osaka, but do not use a cloth handkerchief. The Japanese think using and reusing a hankie, then storing it in your pocket, is the apotheosis of uncouthness. Use tissues instead.

5. Asian business travelers in North America, beware: it is considered worse than rude to spit in public, or clear your nostrils without benefit of a tissue.


When it comes to international protocol, what travelers don't know can really hurt them, says Roger Axtell, the etiquette expert nicknamed "the international Emily Post" for his best-selling series of Do's and Taboos books. "It doesn't take an enormous amount of time to learn a few things about a country's culture," Axtell says. "Business travelers always prepare in advance of a trip--they check on their competition, the investment climate, foreign trade statistics and all sorts of market research, but many fail to do the same scrutiny of the basic principles of business etiquette."
If your business acumen abroad seems to be lacking, perhaps you ought to get cracking on some of these etiquette resources.

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