According to a new American Express report, 46% of respondents admit to making a cultural faux pas while traveling abroad for business purposes. Here’s how to be one of the 54% who don’t.

By Ed Marsh

Jet lag and last-minute schedule changes are some of the hassles of business travel that we all lament. Yet despite the efficiency of email, web meetings and other technologies, face-to-face meetings remain incredibly important to doing business—especially business that involves working with partners around the globe.

The recently published American Express Business Travel Survey of U.S. business travelers confirms the professional appeal and business value of meetings, with 91 percent of respondents reporting that they enjoy business travel and 52 percent reporting that these face-to-face meetings are essential for achieving business objectives. Furthermore, they cited business travel as an important aspect of their career development (36%) and for helping them meet or exceed their business targets (23%).

Travel may even be more important in growing export sales because it helps us bridge gaps in communication and foster the relationships that precede doing business in many cultures. In fact, in a recent conversation, an exporter presented the rhetorical question, “Are you willing to have an $8,000 cup of coffee?” as a measure of one’s willingness to travel to build relationships. His experience and others are included in the Grow Global Insights Series guide, Case Studies: Tips On Global Growth From Successful Exporters, which features several business owners and leaders who emphasize the importance of traveling to meet customers and experiencing a market where they do business.

International travel offers executives a number of valuable benefits, ranging from trying new foods to expanding their cultural EQ. However, it also creates opportunities for cultural mishaps, with 46 percent of survey respondents reporting they’ve made a cultural faux pas while traveling abroad. Below are a few tips and best practices on how to have a productive business travel experience while minimizing the risk of inadvertently offending a prospect, buyer or colleague. These include:

  1. Research before traveling
  2. Respect local cultural norms
  3. Adapt to local customs

Experienced Travelers Research Extensively

Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed indicated that they always research local business customs before their first visit to a new country, and 86 percent agree that this preparation helps them achieve their business objectives.

There are a number of business customs that can vary across different cultures. For example, is the dress more formal or casual for business meetings? How are business leaders addressed in meetings? Is the style of communication more direct or familiar? What are the typical routines for talking about business – is there more relationship building and dialog before these discussions? Do meetings start on time or more casually? How rigid are the organizational roles and hierarchies? What are the expectations for gift giving that’s compliant with policies and laws?

A search on the internet can reveal a number of resources that detail these nuances, such as the Country Commercial Guides, Terri Morrison’s classic Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands and The Lewis Model of cross cultural behaviors.

Respect Local Business Culture

Our cultural habits and expectations are oftentimes so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice them. An important skill for avoiding cultural mishaps is to observe situations, behaviors and people with both introspection and empathy.

Merging the results of pre-travel research with introspection allows you to recognize and meet local expectations. Conducting pre-travel research provides awareness of important cultural nuances – for example, German executives often arrive 15 minutes early and wait in the car until 5 minutes before a meeting – and addressing the situation with introspection allows you to more easily meet local expectations.

Among the most common adjustments survey respondents reported making were form of address (46%) and dress code (44%). Knowing how to properly address others and dressing for success are two things that will help your customers, colleagues and prospects feel more comfortable with you.

“When in Rome…..”

Sometimes circumstances that are out of our control make it difficult to adapt to certain customs and cultural practices. When conflicts of this sort arise, it’s important to acknowledge them, but also honor the legal and cultural obligations we have to ourselves and our coworkers.

However, there are a couple of key adaptations that executives should take into consideration before traveling abroad. Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents cited communication style as the most important adaption to keep in mind. Respecting meeting agendas (18%) and engaging in pre-business conversations (17%) are two other examples of adaptations experienced business travelers make to foster a productive business climate.

It’s also important to consider these factors within the context of telephone and digital correspondence. While email and instant messaging systems are convenient and critical tools that allow us to communicate with colleagues across the globe, they inherently lack tone and inflection, which can lead to misunderstandings.

The Business Case

Face-to-face meetings are important to achieving business goals, but cultural oversights can carry significant costs: sixty-two percent reported that they’d likely be viewed as rude/ignorant, 26 percent projected monetary loss and 48 percent recognized that cultural oversights made it harder to build relationships and land new customers.

Anticipating where local business customs and cultural practices may conflict with our embedded assumptions enables us to make informed choices and adapt where appropriate. Simple advance preparation makes travel more productive, enjoyable and successful—and successful meetings foster relationships, collaboration and business growth.

Ed Marsh is the exporting advisor to American Express Grow Global, which brings together global trade experts, exporting officials, and business leaders to help U.S. small and middle market companies grow their businesses in international markets.