Their Stories

Business Etiquette Blunders from around the World — Expats Share Their Stories

By Elena Born

When pursuing a career abroad, there are many potential pitfalls for expats. From communication blunders to time management and business lunches, different cultures handle all aspects of business life in many different ways. Even with a lot of preparation, misunderstandings are not uncommon.

We asked expats about the biggest misunderstandings they experienced in the business world and what was most difficult to adjust to for them. Here, they share their experiences with us.

The Obstacle Course of Communication

For people living and working abroad, something as simple as greeting a new colleague or business partner can become a challenge. In Thailand, the wai, a bow with hands clasped, is the common form of greeting. Here, the position of the hands is adjusted to reflect the position of the person you’re greeting. When doing business in Japan, it is best to do a bow before shaking hands. In Latin American countries, one the other hand, a hug and even a kiss on the cheek is common, once you have established a relationship with your business partners.

Cathy, an expat from the USA, has experienced this after her move to Costa Rica: “As the American, I always go for the hand to shake and about half the time, this is correct. Other times, people lean in for the cheek kiss or extend one arm for the half hug, where I go to find their hand for a shake,” she says. “It ends up being this awkward hug/kiss/shake showdown where all of us get confused and doubt our original actions, so we have to decide what’s appropriate.”

Luckily, these greeting showdowns have never caused any problems for her, and her colleagues are ready to navigate these situations together with her. “As the ‘new one’, I’m normally able to laugh it off and the team is gentle with me, so it’s funny. They have pretty much gotten used to it.”

When these misunderstandings go beyond simple greetings, however, they can be the source of conflict. When Gianfranco took his Italian temperament to work in the Netherlands, he found that he unintentionally ruffled some feathers. “I was inclined to not leave any stone unturned and any argument unexplored when discussing an issue. I had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way before understanding that it's not appreciated around here.” His colleagues in Amsterdam initially misunderstood his approach to communication. “I once approached a colleague after a meeting because I thought we did not understand each other clearly enough. Unfortunately, my best intentions were so sorely misunderstood that he filed a formal complaint with the management that I was talking aggressively to him.“

Despite Gianfranco’s initial negative experience, it seems like most expats adjust to the business etiquette in the Netherlands quite well. The country comes in 11th out of 53 countries for the ease of understanding the local business etiquette in the Expat Insider 2018 survey. More than half the expats who have lived in the country for a maximum of two years (53%) find this easy, compared to 46% globally. Instead of giving up, Gianfranco became more conscious of non-verbal cues from his colleagues: “If I detect a certain body language, I immediately let the current point fall, or I postpone the discussion to a later moment.” At the same time, he learned how to leverage his physical traits and be more conscious of his voice or posture. The need to adjust to a different style of communicating and paying more attention to his own approach has even turned Gianfranco into a better public speaker and taught him some essential soft skills. “The contact with another culture and expression helped foster my Zen attitudes, like patience and acceptance — something that could be advised to many other people, at every latitude.”

Upon his move from Canada to Qatar, Salman also experienced how non-verbal cues can land you in hot water. “In one of my business meetings with a supplier, I was sitting across from him on the sofa and the sole of my shoes was unintentionally pointing towards him.” He learned later that this is considered to be rude in the GCC culture and had to apologize for his ignorance. Communicating with female co-workers was another challenge. When greeting his colleagues in his Executive MBA class, one female GCC member politely declined to shake his hand. “It was against her religious and cultural customs which I respect and understand. She then told me that it is always best to greet GCC women without any body contact.” According to the Expat Insider 2018 survey, Qatar is in fact one of the countries where it is hardest to get used to the local business etiquette. The country lands in the bottom 10 of the ranking, with more than three in ten expats (31%) saying that they find it hard to understand the etiquette (vs. 24% globally).

Businesspeople Who Lunch

Discussing business topics or holding interviews during lunch has become a common practice. The setting is more informal than in the conference room or at the office, and, of course, there’s the added bonus of enjoying some delicious food. Despite the casual environment, however, there are many faux pas that can happen during a business lunch.

During an interview lunch in the USA, one newly returned expat ordered himself a beer — common practice in the UK. “When the others interviewing me ordered iced teas, I suddenly realized I was back in the US where drinking alcohol at lunch was not the done thing.” Luckily, the interviewers were impressed by his confidence and boldness, and he got the job in the end. This ease of doing business is also reflected in the Expat Insider 2018 ranking for business etiquette: the US ranks 7th out of 53 for this factor.

For another expat from the US, business lunch did not go over quite as smoothly. He was invited to the interior of Paraguay by the female owner of a farm. Not thinking much of it, he decided to bring his newly arrived Italian wife along, forgetting that in Paraguay, women (though owners and decision makers) are not allowed at the table. “My wife was sitting at a large table being the only woman, while the men were served by the owner.” Although his faux pas created a quite uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, he was forgiven, and business went on as usual.

When to Stay and When to Go

Time management is another area that leaves a lot of space for misunderstandings. In some countries, employees are expected to be extremely punctual, while you have some more flexibility with your working hours and lunch breaks in others. What seems like a small issue takes a lot of adjustment for some expats and can be the source of some major conflict at work.

After her move from Italy to the UK, Idina struggled with the time flexibility during coffee/tea and lunch breaks, or rather the lack thereof. “Coming from a Mediterranean country, I had a tendency to stretch my breaks, while in the UK, being on time is considered essential for an excellent performance.”

The general acceptance of smoking breaks is one of the things that threw off an expat from the US after a move to Germany, along with the tendency of many Germans to work later in the day than Americans. “Sometimes, I feel ‘wrong’ when I leave in the afternoon while everyone else is still in the office, even though we all end up working the same number of hours.”

While business etiquette in the UK seems relatively easy to get used to — the country ranks 9th in the Expat Insider 2018 survey — expats struggle more in Germany. Coming in 40th out of 53 countries for this factor, close to three in ten expats living there for less than two years (29%) find this hard.

Dress to Impress

Just like your words and body language, the way you dress in a business setting carries meaning. The formal attire that is appropriate in one country or field of work may not be expected after your move abroad.

In the UK, Terry worked as the director of a Swedish company’s subsidiary. Although the company culture was relatively informal — smart slacks, sports jackets, and neat shirts were the norm, rather than suits — keeping up this dress code while working in the agricultural sector in South Africa caused some issues. “For the first few months of being in South Africa, I found it very difficult to pitch-up at a facility and get to meet the farm manager or senior grower. It took a while to discover that, when they saw me arriving, they assumed I was the bank manager and promptly disappeared.”

Finally, one of his friends suggested a more casual dress code, and as soon as Terry had changed into chinos and open-neck, short-sleeved shirts, all went well. His new business contacts were much more relaxed and open to discussing the systems Terry’s company was offering.

Beyond the Conference Room

Aside from the usual business etiquette rules, local customs and traditions have their way of seeping into expats’ work life. If you’re working in the Middle East, for instance, you might notice that office hours are limited during the month of Ramadan. And expats in India might just be lucky enough to be part of Diwali celebrations at the office.

Although Singapore is the easiest country to work in in terms of business etiquette according to the latest Expat Insider survey — 75% find it easy to get used to it compared to 46% globally — misunderstandings are not uncommon.

Arriving shortly before the Chinese New Year, one expat from the US was excited to experience this popular holiday. The secretary at their workplace handed out festive oranges to all employees for the occasion. However, it was only after eating the fruit, that they realized that all of the other employees had displayed the oranges on their desks in pairs. “I discreetly asked if I was supposed to eat them and found out that they should be left out as an auspicious sign of prosperity. I had only one left and had to figure out if I should eat it and get rid of the evidence or try to buy a second and pretend I hadn't eaten the symbol of a prosperous new year!”

Gift giving in general can be another cause for misunderstanding. Especially in a business setting, gifts carry meaning, from the color of the wrapping paper to the actual item being gifted.

Tony, a British-Australian expat got a job with the government in Hong Kong in 1972. To his delight, he was invited to a colleague’s wedding just a few months later. “So, what did I do? Well, I went out and bought them a toaster. I thought it was the right thing to do!” He soon realized that all the other guests gave little red envelopes full of money instead, as is customary in China and Hong Kong. Such a hóngbao should contain enough money to cover the costs of the guest at the wedding and to appropriately represent the relationship to the recipient. It might be partly due to these rigid societal rules that Hong Kong achieves mediocre results for business etiquette, ranking 28th in the Expat Insider 2018 survey, while China even comes in 51st, only ahead of Saudi Arabia and Japan.

Small Talk and Privacy

Enquiring about the personal life of your colleagues or business partners can be tricky. After all, it’s not always clear when to keep your private and work life separate and how open you can actually be.

After his move from Canada to Qatar, Salman experienced various situations in which navigating that line between business and personal life was challenging. “In some countries, where relationships are much more valuable then monetary transactions, they expect you to build personal relationships before conducting business. Whereas in other countries, you have to talk business right away as time is of value for them.” It gets complicated when business partners expect personal chit chat before a meeting but discussing the family or spouse is completely off limits. “In Qatar, one can only share their personal life in a business environment after they have established close ties with each other. Even then, they cannot always discuss their more intimate personal lives involving certain health matters or inquiring about spouse and daughters.”

However, Salman had prepared well ahead of his move, and many of these rules of business etiquette are not unique to Qatar alone. “It was not surprising at all,” he says, “as this is the case in many South Asian and Middle Eastern countries.” June 2019: Traveling abroad in the year ahead?


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What really happens when you flush a plane loo?

22 JANUARY 2018 •

Unless you’ve flown first class, or in a private jet, aircraft loos are windowless, cramped affairs that usually reek of cheap sanitizer. But they have come a long way – and rarely get the recognition they deserve.

The first flight (made by Orville Wright, although some conspiracy theorists think otherwise – more on that here), explains Aviation Global News, lasted just 12 seconds – “hardly long enough to get worked up from a bladder perspective, although one may surmise that a number two might have been on his mind”. 

But before long, planes were flying for much longer. “It is obvious that someone, somewhere, was the first person to relieve themselves in an aircraft. Who was this urinary pioneer? – history does not record,” laments the website.

Some interesting facts have been recorded, however. Second World War pilots, for example, couldn’t stand the “slop bucket” loos – or “Elsans” – found on board Lancaster bombers. They often overflowed in turbulent conditions, or were tricky to use.

One unidentified airman described his hatred for the contraptions: “While we were flying in rough air, this devil’s convenience often shared its contents with the floor of the aircraft, the walls, the ceiling, and sometimes a bit remained in the container itself.

The loos on Second World War planes weren't great

“It doesn't take much imagination to picture what it was like trying to combat fear and airsickness while struggling to remove enough gear in cramped quarters and at the same time trying to use the bloody Elsan… This loathsome creation invariably overflowed on long trips and in turbulence was always prone to bathe the nether regions of the user. It was one of the true reminders to me that war is hell.”

Airmen sometimes preferred to urinate or defecate into containers, before simply hurling their business out of a window. Some reputedly jettisoned full Elsan toilets on German targets along with their bombs – an early example of biological warfare.

During the Second World War, airmen sometimes preferred to urinate into containers, before simply hurling their business out of a window

James Kemper’s modern vacuum toilet wasn’t patented until the Seventies, with the first one installed by Boeing in 1982. Before that, plane loos were unwieldy boxes that utilised large quantities of blue liquid known as “Skykem” and were prone to leaking. So next time you’re queuing to use the facilities at 35,000 feet, count yourself lucky.

Kemper’s nifty device uses a little liquid, but relies on non-stick coating and vacuum suction to wash away the nastiness. The video below shows just how efficiently the vacuum works. 

Plane loos haven't changed much in the last 35 years 

Since then, there have not really been any dramatic advances in aircraft toilet technology – if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The only noteworthy item is that the toilets on Boeing's 787 Dreamliners have automatically closing lids. Oh, and some toilets are getting smaller to really cram in those paying customers.

So what does happen to all that waste? Is it jettisoned into the sky? To all those fliers who make a point of holding it in until the plane reaches European soil, prepare to be sorely disappointed.

“There is no way to jettison the contents of the lavatories during a flight,” explains Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, a book about air travel. “At the end of a flight, the blue fluid, along with your contributions to it, are vacuumed into a tank on the back of a truck. (The truck driver’s job is even lousier than the co-pilot’s, but it pays better.)

Waste is collected – and then offloaded. Simple and dull.

“The driver then wheels around to the back of the airport and furtively offloads the waste in a ditch behind a parking lot... Just kidding. In truth I don’t know what he does with it. Time to start a new urban legend.”

There is one caveat, however. It is impossible to empty passengers' waste from an aircraft intentionally, but not by mistake.

“A man in California once won a lawsuit after pieces of blue ice fell from a plane and came crashing through the skylight of his sailboat,” added Captain Smith. “A leak, extending from a toilet’s exterior nozzle fitting, caused runoff to freeze, build, and then drop like a neon ice bomb. If you think that’s bad, a 727 once suffered an engine separation after ingesting a frozen chunk of its own leaked toilet waste, inspiring the line ‘when the s*** hits the turbofan.’”




Good Travel Medical Insurance and Why You Need It: A Personal Story

While vacationing, medical evacuation is the furthest thing from most of our minds, but if you don’t take simple steps to mitigate the risk,  you could be in for a shock.  Here is the true case of my son, who at the age of four months,  required life saving medical evacuation from Ho Chi Minh City, VN to Bangkok, Thailand. 

It was the year 2007, and our family was living in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) at the time, and I was working with International SOS, the world’s largest medical and travel security assistance company. Our nanny had accidentally given our son, a purple root vegetable that when ingested can be toxic, because it depletes the supply of oxygen to red blood cells, causing one to choke from within and the afflicted to turn blue.

I was downstairs in my house when my wife frantically screamed that our son had turned blue and was gasping for air. We rushed out the door, frantically looking for a taxi and managed to catch one to the International SOS clinic, but the doctor on duty wasn’t able to diagnose the problem. His hunch that this was an allergic reaction to a vegetable paid off, and he promptly called one of his Vietnamese colleagues at Children’s Hospital #1, the largest teaching hospital in HCMC. Once we arrived, the doctors swiftly diagnosed the problem and gave our son the antidote, which thankfully worked quickly. Next we were told that there was no bed for our son,  and we could all wait outside in the 90+ degree heat. My employer, International SOS promptly and thankfully, arranged for a medical evacuation to Bangkok and Bumrungrad Hospital, a center of excellence in the region.

My wife, son, and I boarded a charter medevac flight about seven hours later, with International SOS managing the bed-to-bed transfer and medical supervision. We stayed in Bangkok for the next four days until International SOS and Bumrungrad were comfortable with releasing our son from the hospital. Having great medical insurance in place averted a situation that could have quickly gone bad to worse from both a medical and financial standpoint, it were not for my medical insurance policy, which included payment for medical evacuation service. In fact medical evacuation costs can greatly exceed $50,000, so it's best to travel smart and be protected.

Written by James Pruss

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