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Cultural faux pas can doom international business deals

April 15, 2012|By Hugo Martin
  • The wrong hand gesture can doom an international business deal.
The wrong hand gesture can doom an international business deal. (Steven H. Keys / Keys Photography )

Business travel is growing within the U.S. and across the globe, especially with the booming economies in China, Brazil and Australia.

But an innocent hand gesture can doom what otherwise would be a very profitable trip across international borders.

International business trips, launched from the U.S., reached 6.78 million trips in 2011, a 3% increase over 2010, according to the Global Business Travel Assn., a Virginia-based trade group.

To help make sure those business trips go smoothly, Dean Foster, a cultural etiquette expert who has consulted for such companies as DreamWorks, Volkswagen, Heineken and Bank of America, has put his 25 years of expertise in a series of cellphone and tablet applications.

Foster, who founded New York-based DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, has created 20 apps, one each for countries such as China, Japan, India, Brazil and Turkey. He is working on more apps now. The apps are sold in ITunes and the Apple App store for $9.99 each.

Among the tips offered by Foster’s app:

In any country where chopsticks are used, the app suggests that you never stick your chopsticks standing up in a rice bowl. This symbolizes death.

In Brazil, it says never to make the "thumb-to-forefinger" OK sign, which is a rude gesture that is likely to offend most Brazilians.

When giving a gift in East Asia, the app says to wrap it in red or gold, colors that symbolize wealth and happiness.

When giving gifts in Arab countries, it suggests using green wrapping paper, the symbolic color of Islam.

Even in a era when America’s customs and expressions are seen in movies and television around the world, Foster said the most innocent hand gesture can wreck a profitable international business deal.

"You may be signing a deal in Brazil and there are no problems and you flash the OK sign to a colleague," he said. "You just ruined the deal because that OK sign is a very vulgar gesture in Brazil."


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