Exporting etiquette: Knowing me, knowing you

Etiquette "experts" warn foreign business people, "When invited to dinner, you may be ridiculed if you are a vegetarian since most South Africans are fond of meat dishes." (Photograph: sa-venues.com.)

ONE of the first lessons in exporting maintains that successful international dealings call for more than just commercial expertise. Ignorance about a customer or supplier’s culture can lead to misinterpretation, frustration, and sometimes even acute and costly embarrassment. You surely knew, for example, that if you sit in a position from which the sole of your shoe can be seen by an associate from Bahrain, it condemns the viewer to hell? And that if you compliment him on his beautifully cut trousers, he will immediately insist that you accept them as a gift?

Indeed, savvy exporters thoroughly research their potential clients’ culture and business etiquette when preparing to venture into new territories. The premise, says Norine Victor, who is a personal development consultant at Cape Town training company, 1st Solutions and the author of the business culture guide for South Africa at http://www.executiveplanet.com, is that not everyone conducts business the same way.

“You have to be aware of cultural differences if you are going to do business with people with different backgrounds,” she says. “Something as simple as making eye contact means different things in different cultures. Even in our own country, some people believe it is impolite to look an authority figure in the eye, while others believe it is rude not to make good eye contact at all times.”

So, smart exporters do their homework. They earnestly study books like Global Business Negotiations: A Practical Guide, Asian Ways – A Westerner’s Guide to Asian Business Etiquette and Blunders In International Business. They avidly google ‘business etiquette’ followed by their target country’s name and painstakingly memorise the findings. Some even consult experts like Victor to coach them the relevant protocol.

Have you ever wondered though, what prospective export/import associates might learn about us when they no doubt apply the same rules and endeavour to find out how to best do business with South Africans?

In fact, some of the recommendations out there – particularly those floating about indefinitely in the googlesphere – for doing business in this country are gobsmackingly bizarre. Did you know for example, that although South African men “of urban cultures generally wear western dress, South African women wear saris”? And that “a decade ago, it might have been safe to assume that South Africans were ignorant about the rest of the world. Not so now. Business acquaintances, at least those you will meet in the big cities, are likely to be worldly-wise”?

So-called experts on South Arican business etiquette go on to warn that we enjoy small talk. In fact, we like it so much that – horror upon horrors – we engage in it “before, during and after meetings”. What’s more, we “often use metaphors and sports analogies to demonstrate a point”, regularly slap business associates on the back and “might even hold your hand, all as signs of friendship and affection”.

The counsel continues. Potential international suppliers and clients are cautioned, “not to rush deals because South Africans are very casual in their business dealings.” They are also advised to “keep a tone of negotiation and avoid a tough, hard-sell attitude – South Africans are not tough negotiators”.

Then there is our alleged tardiness: “Waiting for appointments is common. The approach to time can be relaxed in South Africa, and it is not unusual for meetings to be postponed.” Furthermore, “deadlines are often viewed as fluid rather than firm commitments”.

And things get even more complicated when it comes to protocol for dining with business associates in South Africa: “When invited to dinner, you may be ridiculed if you are a vegetarian since most South Africans are fond of meat dishes”. Moreover “during dinner do not strike up conversations with the servants… but make frequent eye contact with those conversing and nod in agreement often to come across as a good listener.”

Of course, chances are though, that you’ll never make it to the restaurant or meeting place because “addresses (in South Africa) are difficult to find because of the addressing system”.

On the other hand, some caveats about doing business in South Africa are sadly too often reasonable: “If you send a woman, she must expect to encounter some condescending behaviour and to be tested in ways that a male colleague would not.” (Although the corresponding advice offered to women in this regard is (equally) sadly patronising: “Prove yourself by knowing your subject matter well and by not being aggressive. Let any sour comments roll off of you and take it in your stride. Hopefully, and eventually, you’ll be seen as strong and determined.”)

And then some of the advice on offer to the uninitiated is remarkable only because it is considered worthy of mention. For example, did you know that South Africans like “win-win situations”, but “do not like to be interrupted when they are talking” and are not impressed by “fancy visual presentations”? Indeed, we are an astonishingly unique bunch.

(First published in the Exporter supplement of Business Day.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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