Although technological advances have made business travel less of a necessity, there are still some occasions when being present in person is essential. For example, if you're attempting to woo a new client or address a difficult issue, an e-mail often just won't do.
This article looks at how getting the little things right—most importantly, recognizing and anticipating a multitude of cultural differences—can help you make the most of your trip outside the United States.
The Internet is by far the most popular source of information these days, yes, but it can be time-consuming or inconvenient to visit many sites, especially if your journey has been arranged at short notice. On top of any online research you do, it's worth finding out whether any coworkers have visited the area before—they may have useful tips. It's also a good idea to contact (or visit, if possible) the U.S. embassy or consulate of the country you are visiting. Most have useful background literature about their countries and how best to do business there.
If your destination country is relatively small or on the road to economic development, bear in mind that the embassy may be small. It's best to phone in advance to find what the opening hours are, and remember that not all the staff may have fluent English.
If you're absolutely sure that an overseas trip is essential, once you've found out your travel arrangements, dig a little deeper into the information on offer about your destination so that you can avoid making gaffes. Are you sure you know what the official languages are? For example, although you may have learned some useful phrases in Spanish ahead of your trip to South America, you won't have much success in Brazil, where (unlike everywhere else nearby, the official language is Portuguese).
It's is also a good idea to find out about the history of the country you're visiting. In some parts of Africa and Eastern Europe this can bed complex, but an overview will be a great help and, again, should help you avoid making embarrassing comments or observations. Whatever your personal opinions may be about a particular issue or national figure in that country, keep it to yourself, even if your hosts are volubly for or against.
As well as finding out what your destination's main religions are, do look at when religious and public holidays are observed: if they appear in clusters, you may want to avoid that time so that your meeting schedule isn't disrupted.
Finally, check the weather. The Internet has many sites offering long-range weather forecasts so that you can have a good idea about what type of clothes to pack. If you are going to a tropical country, do you need to have any antimalaria jabs?
You won't need to a visa to travel everywhere in the world, but it's a good idea to check. Ask your travel agent for help or contact the country's embassy. Leave as much time for this as you can: you'll most likely have to fill in forms and send in a photograph and a passport, and it can sometimes take months, rather than weeks, to have the paperwork processed.
It's pretty easy to find out a country's official currency, but in some cases you may not need any: U.S. dollars may be just as welcome, and the same goes for traveler's checks. If you do take out the local currency, make sure your bank at home will accept it if you need to change it back when you get home.
Find out if your credit card can be used in your destination country too, as that may be a useful backup. You may have to pay a commission for using it, though.
There are many stereotypes about English-speaking travelers who make no effort to learn another language and shout to make themselves 'understood'. If you can learn some key phrases in the language of the country you're visiting—especially greetings and thanks—it will be appreciated. You should also consider the questions below.
- What happens with tips? Are they required? If so, in what situations? For example, in people don't tip in restaurants but do tip taxi drivers; in others it's the opposite. It's worth finding out if there's a general rule or if it varies between region.
- What is the locally acceptable practice for giving and receiving gifts? It's rare for gifts to be exchanged in most Western business situations, but common elsewhere. In some countries, it is not the done thing to bring a gift for the wife of a business colleague if you are a man unless you say that it has been sent by a female member of your family.
- What is and what is not regarded as good manners? People are sometimes very critical of their own country—but can be offended if you agree with them. Learn as much as you can before your trip, and be tactful when you are traveling.
- How will my humor translate? Be wary of making personal remarks, even in jest. In some cultures, the importance of "face" is a major factor in business transactions, and what seems to you like a friendly ice-breaker may not be seen as such as by others. Avoid joking about politics as far as you can, especially if you're traveling in Eastern Europe: you could be talking to a former Communist about an institution that he or she managed.
- What about body language? Understand that body language isn't universal. While in many countries, nodding means that you agree with someone, in some European countries it means the exact opposite.
Take it easy at social occasions. If you're having a drink with your host, pace yourself: your hosts may be used to whatever you're drinking, but you won't be.
As most countries are so much smaller than the United States, it can be tempting to pack too much into your schedule. Be sensible about how many meetings you plan and where, checking that you have enough time to travel between them comfortably.
Some parts of the world will not offer a warm welcome to visiting Westerners, and it is always advisable to check with the State Department if you are at all unsure about how wise a planned trip may be. See below for the useful site aimed at U.S. citizens planning an international trip.
Your hosts and the people you meet on your trip will probably be as proud of their country's achievement as you are of yours, so remember to listen to them respectfully and patiently. Don't overtly criticize their way of doing business, their religion, or their leading politicians: you have no idea whether they are supporters or not. Remember that you are going to build links, not destroy them!
CIA World Fact Book: www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook
Travel.State.gov (Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. State Department): http://travel.state.gov