Why do's and don't's for international meetings are not as smart as you think

Who wouldn’t like to have a list with do’s and dont’s when dealing with international business partners?

They seem to be really handy. They are supposed to tell you what do with just a quick glance at your list.


My coaching clients always tell me how efficient and reassuring these lists are. That’s what business people love: efficiency, practicality, a correct answer to everything. I can check how to behave in a negotiation with an Indian person for example. 


Here is the first trap of these lists because intercultural encounters are not always as straightforward as these lists imply. 


If you want to have smart, effective international meetings then you might want to know more about the problem with lists with do’s and dont’s and what to to instead.


The problem with do’s and don’ts: 

#1 They ignore how you should communicate.

And they “only” talk about behavior and say nothing about communication. Let’s take the example of handing over business cards to Chinese business people. We are supposed to take them with two hands, look at them and then place them face up on the table. 


But what kind of communication happens in between?

Do’s and dont’s forget to tell you that.

 For example A: “Here is my business card”.

B: “Thank you. Ah you are Mr. Chang.”


How am I supposed to communicate with an Indian business partner? 

Do I use direct language or indirect language? 

Do I start with a shorter or longer small talk phase?

How should I express negative information?


The problem with do’s and don’ts: 

#2 You risk overgeneralizing

As handy as these lists seem to be they also contain the danger of generalization. Let’s take the example of avoiding uncertainty. You read on your list that Germany is a country where people avoid uncertainty. So, you might expect every single German person not to be able to deal with uncertainty and behave accordingly. This is a cultural generalization.

If you generalize about all your business partners, you’ll end up putting them in a box. Because the lists imply a certain way of thinking in black and white. You create stereotypes that generalize all people of one nationality.

Sure, it’s something our brains like to do. But never forget: dealing with different cultures in business meetings is more complex than that.


Your business partners share the same language and might sometimes have a similar upbringing and education. But their peer groups, values beliefs and views of the world also determine their personality.


What does that mean for you? Your business partner might not behave the way you expect him to because it is mentioned in the list. If he hosts the meeting for example then he might also inform himself about your culture and traditions. 


The problem with do’s and don’ts: 

#3 You risk hurting your business relationships!


Let’s take the example of punctuality. You are meeting an Indian business partner. You had a look at your “do’s and dont’s”. They told you your partner might be late for the meeting. But he informed himself about your culture and knows that punctuality is paramount in business! So he arrives 10 minutes before the meeting at the meeting room to welcome you.

You arrive slightly late. And your meeting starts with this awkward misunderstanding. You feel embarrassed and ‘not your best’ the rest of the time. 


Your business partner might also have had contact with other people from your culture and know a little about your culture. 


If I expect a certain behaviour of my business partner but he doesn’t behave that way I might be a little surprised and insecure. I have shown that I’m not flexible enough to show another behaviour because I am blocked now and start apologising.

It is better to be flexible and adjust your behaviour and communication skills according to the situation.

💡I recommend not using lists of do’s and don’t’s for international business meetings.


Surely, you should inform yourself about your business partner’s culture. But in the meeting it is important to be present and listen carefully in the conversation. 

Showing attention and flexibility are extremely important for international business meetings. You can always behave appropriately and your business meeting will be a huge success. 


What do you think about lists of do’s and don’t’s?

Please share your thoughts in the comments. 👇

Want to take this a step further?

If you need help with this challenge you might want to work with a coach. Please feel free to get in touch.

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