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Friday, 8 March 2013


I was in a hotel bar after a busy exhibition day in Atlanta. The barmaid asked me what I wanted to drink. I asked for a Guinness. “Whereabouts in Australia are you from?” she asked. “England” I said. “Oh is that near Sydney?” she replied. “Well not really…” I quipped…”it’s about 10,000 miles north”, to which she replied “I just love Australian accents”. 

I was a tad offended at being thought of as an Australian. Just as Australians might recoil at being thought of as a Pommy, as Scots don’t like to be called English, Indians don’t like to be called Pakistanis, and Canadians don’t like to be called Americans. The list goes on. It’s because where we are from is actually very important to us. The flags of our countries also help in identifying where we are from, where our businesses are based. However there can be issues over the use of flags and emblems commercially, and businesses and individuals need to be sensitive to these.

To a British company, a Union Jack on a product brochure or sample book may just be intended as a ‘Made in Britain’ statement. However, where the Union Jack may be received well in Unionist areas of Northern Ireland, the EU flag is likely to be a better option in Republican areas of the North and more generally in the Republic of Ireland. Similarly, the Spanish national flag may not be a welcome symbol in the Basque country or Catalonia. These are not universal truths but they can be extremely important according to who is receiving the messages. Because it isn’t just about your identity, it’s also about the identity and cultural background of those you are presenting to, and your respect for it.  

It really does cover everything. What you say and the way you conduct yourself will depend on the knowledge you have of a market and its customs and traditions. Some are very obvious, and others less so, but if you are serious about generating and retaining business in unfamiliar countries then you need to do your research, market by market. Probably one of the most important and simplest first steps in dealing with the markets of the Far East, is to understand the importance of business cards. In Japan they are referred to as ‘Meishi’ and represent loyalty & respect for the company you work for.

I was helping a young, and inexperienced salesman last year with a series of quick fire 15 minute meetings at a UK construction exhibition. One of our meetings was with two excellent gentlemen from Hong Kong. I took the lead with the introductions, handing over my card in the expected respectful two-handed manner, and received their cards with the same respect, commenting on their status within their company – one a Managing Director, the other a Technical Manager.

My colleague then placed his business cards in on the table in front of each guest and on receiving theirs, proceeded to put one of them in his shirt pocket while the other acted as a notepad for our meeting! Thankfully, it didn’t seem to matter. In the final analysis I was at fault for not preparing the salesman properly, and as things turned out the meeting went well and resulted (almost one year later) in an exclusive distribution deal being signed for them to distribute products into Hong Kong. So you can recover from the odd gaffe, but to repeat such lack of sensitivity and common courtesy would be a big mistake.

We all make mistakes and that’s acceptable, and there are numerous and often quoted examples of misunderstanding, literal translation and sometimes double entendre. There are also many more translations where the receiver gets the jist and knows exactly what is being said, but it might be rude to point it out! I encountered one of my favourites when first visiting Stockholm. There was a sign in the airport arrivals lounge that said ‘Thank you for staying and welcome back’ which of means something like ‘Thank you for visiting and we hope you return’. However expressed, it’s a really nice gesture. A year or so afterwards I was being dropped off by a bus at Stockholm airport when the driver announced ‘Thank you for staying and welcome back. Please take everything above you and beside you’ which of course I did, apart from the person in the adjoining seat.

So it isn’t just about what is done or said, it is also about the meaning and intention behind what you say and how you conduct yourself, understanding what other people who don’t speak your language as a first language are trying to say, and in some instances how you recover from making unintended gaffes!

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