In our hyperconnected world, we are required to make the perception shift from viewing our own culture as “the culture” to “a culture,” one of many diverse sets of values, traditions, and rituals across the world. While English might be an important international language, the US traditions remain local to the US. Values, boundaries, and interpretation of gestures vary from country to country.
Do not rely on the inviting party to do all the work for you: some of your mistakes might be forgiven, but without at least a minimal preparation, you might be seen as ignorant and arrogant - or even lose a chance to establish a connection you seek. Even the famous US niceness and focus on being diplomatic can be mistaken for being insincere or hiding an agenda.
Germany Is Big On Formalities
Germans are hardworking and are very formal at work, so you want to be very structured and extremely punctual. If you say that you reply “tomorrow,” do so, and show up for meetings on time. You want to let the oldest person enter the meeting room first. All presentations need to be specific, factual, and realistic: flowery speech and emotional appeal are not appreciated.
Germans respect being direct and straightforward in communication, so they would rather err on the side of being blunt. Your niceness and diplomacy, or attempts at humor will not be appreciated in the business context. Everyone would call each other by surname.
Business meetings are well structured, with the agenda and schedule planned and sent over in advance. Germans can be quite rigid and prefer to avoid sudden changes, even if they are for the best. Every plan has a contingency plan and is carried to the letter.
The French Value Balance
In France, you want to make sure you never arrive unannounced: personal life is respected just as much as business life, so make appointments for both. Punctuality, however, is not a significant pressure and is treated in a relaxed manner. In France, the focus is on what is truly important, and not on meaningless surface things: so do not be surprised if your colleagues arrive late, but you can be sure that they will be prepared.
Speaking French is highly appreciated, as it is a part of the French identity treated with the utmost respect. If you do not have time to learn French before your trip, learn a few phrases, greetings, expressions of gratitude, and apologize for your lack of fluency. French is not a complicated language, and you will pick up a few phrases easily. Make sure to greet everyone when you enter the room and say goodbye when you leave.
Expect lengthy meals: lunch can easily last up to two hours. Food is appreciated and treated with respect, so rushing through it without taking a moment to enjoy it may not look great. The same goes for wine.
Giving presents is acceptable in France, but they are not typically exchanged at the first meeting. You can bring them if you are invited to dinner or a visit afterward. Good taste is imperative when giving gifts in France: gifts should not insult the intelligence of French associates, and a company logo on the gift is considered a poor taste. It might be a good idea to bring an unusual food or curiosity from your own country: French love to explore the world and try new and bizarre foods.
When In Belgium...
If you are in doubt about which language to use in Belgium, speak English. When you arrive for a business meeting in Belgium, be prepared to spend some time just saying hello. Shake hands with everyone - men, women, and children alike - at business and social meetings. Repeat your name to every person when you are being introduced. Shake hands again when leaving.
Belgians take punctuality in business seriously, so it is a good idea to call and let them know if you are delayed. While initial meetings are to establish a general understanding and trust, Belgians do not take too long before getting down to business. Overall, expect your business meetings to be formal and for the personal relationship to follow the business relationship, not the other way around. So it is better to avoid personal subjects and asking about private lives.
Belgians have an appreciation for clear and transparent facts and figures and do not like wasting time on fluff. In general, they are educated and logical people who appreciate common sense and are open to negotiations.
In business settings, there is generally no gift exchange. But if you are invited to someone’s private home, bring flowers for the hostess and something for the kids (small gifts or sweets).
Is it ok to give a gift to a business partner in France?
Giving presents is acceptable in France, but they are not typically exchanged at the first meeting. You can bring them if you are invited to dinner or a visit afterward.
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