Good manners, good business
Nobody actually wants to cause offence but, as business becomes ever more international, it is increasingly easy to get it wrong. There may be a single European market but it does not mean that managers behave the same in Greece as they do in Denmark.
In many European countries handshaking is an automatic gesture. In France good manners require that on arriving at a business meeting a manager shakes hands with everyone present. This can be a demanding task and, in a crowded room, may require gymnastic ability if the farthest hand is to be reached.
Handshaking is almost as popular in other countries -including Germany, Belgium and Italy. But Northern Europeans, such as the British and Scandinavians, are not quite so fond of physical demonstrations of friendliness.
In Europe the most common challenge is not the content of the food, but the way you behave as you eat. Some things are just not done. In France it is not good manners to raise tricky questions of business over the main course. Business has its place; after the cheese course. Unless you are prepared to eat in silence you have to talk about something -something, that is, other than the business deal which you are continually chewing over in your head.
Italians give similar importance to the whole process of business entertaining. In fact, in Italy the biggest fear, as course after course appears, is that you entirely forget you are there on business. If you have the energy, you can always do the polite thing when the meal finally ends, and offer to pay. Then, after a lively discussion, you must remember the next polite thing to do - let your host pick up the bill.
In Germany, as you walk sadly back to your hotel room, you may wonder why your apparently friendly hosts have not invited you out for the evening. Don't worry, it is probably nothing personal. Germans do not entertain business people with quite the same enthusiasm as some of their European counterparts.
The Germans are also notable for the amount of formality they bring to business. As an outsider, it is often difficult to know whether colleagues have been working together for 30 years or have just met in the lift. If you are used to calling people by their first names this can be a little strange. To the Germans, titles are important. Forgetting that someone should be called Herr Doktor or Fran Direktorin might cause serious offence. It is equally offensive to call them by a title they do not possess.
In Italy the question of title is further confused by the fact that everyone with a university degree can be called Dottore - and engineers, lawyers and architects may also expect to be called by their professional titles.
These cultural challenges exist side by side with the problems of doing business in a foreign language. Language, of course, is full of difficulties - disaster may be only a syllable away. But the more you know of the culture of the country you are dealing with, the less likely you are to get into difficulties. It is worth the effort. It might be rather hard to explain that the reason you lost the contract was not the product or the price, but the fact that you offended your hosts in a light-hearted comment over an aperitif. Good manners are admired: they can also make or break the deal.
New International Business English, adapted from an article by Richard Bryan in Business Life