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Foreign trade all a matter of manners

THE concept of etiquette as a cultural code of behavior exists in unwritten conventions within all societies. And as the contemporary era of globalized economies moves toward a borderless world, cultural practices are being transported overseas by businessmen, students and migrants exploring new opportunities.

The challenges faced by people trying to integrate into a different culture, or absorbing those from another culture into their own, can be both unsettling and then rewarding as the level of understanding a person accrues about a society's behavior standards takes root and develops.

As Chinese companies have fueled the nation's unparalleled growth over the past few decades by expanding into overseas markets, executives and workers have needed to blend with the social conventions of the countries they trade with and the manners of their foreign counterparts.

But just as China's operators have adapted to overseas business and social conventions, so have Western and Middle Eastern operators needed to understand the nuances of China's behavior codes.

Equipping people to cope harmoniously with the initial challenges of establishing and maintaining cross-cultural business relationships is dealt with everyday by Joanna Williams (pictured left), 32, who works with a wide range of big and small Chinese companies in Shanghai, including China Eastern Airlines.

She deals predominantly with companies wanting to expand internationally and seeking greater understanding of what to do when trading in Western cultures, how to blend in rather than standing out in a negative way that will reflect against the company.

"Learning about international business practices, manners or etiquette is very much about learning new skills,?she said this week. "It's not about learning how to eat with a knife and fork so you have to change your eating habits. Nobody can change their culture, nor should they,?she said.

Apart from China Eastern, Williams has advised luxury brands, engineering, media and service companies. She has helped the luxury home wares German company Rosenthal parlay the attributes of its products to Chinese customers and worked with real estate developers to help demystify the Western cultural twists in new villas bought by Chinese.

She draws on 10 years of business and management experience in the watch, jewelry and luxury goods industry as a qualified gemmologist, working with names such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and Chopard and plies her people polishing skills through Mannhart Consulting on Tianshan Road run with Swiss business partner Reto Tomasini.

The range of cultural situations she covers is wide, befitting the kaleidoscope of differences in practices in each culture, and can be endless when you think about it.

"There are different areas where many people want to know what to do in situations where they've been left quite uncomfortable, or they felt embarrassed by not knowing what to do,?Williams said.

She finds that Chinese want to learn about Western business practices and appropriateness so that they fit in more with their foreign clients. When they take them to dinner, they can feel confident and comfortable when presented with an a la carte menu.

"The questions we get focus on everything from why do foreigners kiss each other goodbye to why isn't it okay to add cola and ice to my wine??she said.

The issues arise at home as well as overseas and Williams cites an example of Chinese working in a multinational environment where the dynamics are changed when, for instance, a Swiss company merges with a German company.

Having worked out how to deal with one culture, Chinese managers and staff need to work out the differences in the practices and demands of another.

There's also confusion in matters of dress where dilemmas, she said, can extend to interpreting a social invitation that calls for a black tie dress code or knowing what is appropriate to wear in an industry workplace. "In China, the biggest difference we see is men wearing white socks with black pants, which might be appropriate in a local business context,?she said.

"However in an international environment people may think this strange, a bit Michael Jackson. It's not necessarily fitting in an overseas corporate environment and detracts from the person's professionalism and skills sets.

"There are also forms of business dress that we recommend for Chinese women going on a Western business trip ... and certain ones we recommend they avoid. We find some women are wearing quite revealing outfits that may not be acceptable in an American law office,?she said.

Then there's the simple things she deals with: "In China we have our traditional ganbei toasts and cigarettes being thrown across the dinner table, but what happens if we do that with the British or Australians, we're asked,?she said.

Her approach: "Some cultures are more sympathetic to certain other cultures?idiosyncrasies, so it all depends on where people go and what they want to achieve.?

All very simple, really.


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