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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

When in Rome… don’t be late for your meeting

It is important to be punctual for business meetings in the Netherlands, whereas Brazilians believe latecomers are likely to be more successful in commerce than people who arrive early. And although Italians expect you to be timely for a meeting, they will make a point of turning up late to show you who’s boss. As they say in Rome (and everywhere else in Italy), Le persone importante si fanno aspettare – important people make you wait!

Understanding these cultural quirks of business etiquette could be the difference between success and failure for British companies looking to win new customers overseas, according to global credit insurer Atradius.

Will Clark, Atradius’s regional director UK and Ireland, explains: ‘The Internet and email might have made the world a smaller place, but when it comes to doing business we still like to meet in person and agree deals with a handshake.’

Many overseas customers do business in English, giving British firms a head start over their foreign rivals. However, just because English is spoken, a turn of phrase does not always mean the same in a foreign country as it does in the UK – especially when it comes to saying no.

Customers in south-east Asia and east Asia feel it is impolite to say no and will often say yes, even though they are not agreeing to the deal.

In other countries your seemingly innocuous body language can actually cause offence:

  • In Chile, holding your palm upward and then spreading the fingers signals that someone is ‘stupid’, while slapping your right fist into your left open palm is considered obscene.
  • In India, never point your feet at anyone, as they are considered unclean. If your shoes or feet touch another person, apologise.
  • Be careful not to sit with your legs crossed in Egypt as showing the sole of your shoe is considered an insult. And don’t tap your two index fingers together – this is considered a crude gesture meaning ‘will you sleep with me?’
  • In Saudi Arabia the ‘thumbs up’ gesture is offensive.

The meeting is a crucial part of doing business overseas and can be almost a ritual for many countries:

  • In Japan most decisions are reached through a group decision-making process, so expect to make your presentation to many people at a lot of meetings.
  • In China, business culture may seem regimented and slow, but let your hosts set the pace of a meeting. The Chinese put a lot of store in rank, so select a senior member of your team to be spokesperson.
  • Italians prefer to do business with the most important people in your organisation.
  • In the Netherlands, late arrival will be frowned upon, as the Dutch believe that people who can’t use their time wisely cannot be trusted.
  • Data collection is also important to the Dutch, so don’t be surprised if your host has a complete dossier on you when you arrive for a meeting.
  • Brazilians do business with people they like – and being late for appointments suggests you’re relaxed. Brazilians like to get to know their business partners, so expect a lot of negotiation and several meetings before agreeing a deal.