Protocol for Globe-Trotting Toastmasters

Preparing for an international presentation can be fraught with concerns: travel arrangements, conference logistics, security and – oh yes, your speech!

Before you step up to the microphone to address an international audience, it’s a good idea to learn about your attendees. Inquiring about the protocol and business practices in each country will help you avoid delivering an embarrassing faux pas along with your brilliant presentation.

Here are three tips that may help build your credibility while speaking abroad:

1.  Say my name correctly. Names represent much more than just a moniker in many countries. They can be a link to an individual’s heritage: his or her parents, grandparents, or even the town where he or she was born. Therefore, mangling a name is more significant when the person’s name is actually a patronymic – a family name.

For example, if you were extremely close friends with the former President of Russia, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, you might address him as Vladimir Vladimirovich. Among themselves, Russians often address each other by their first names and patronymic. Thus, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s first name is Vladimir (which has been translated to mean “Great, glorious ruler”), and his middle name means “son of Vladimir.”

And this tradition is more widespread than you might think. Many cultures – from Arabic to Swedish to Spanish – incorporate their parents’ names into their own. If you cannot pronounce the name correctly, you not only insult the person in front of you but his or her ancestors as well.

Of course, you should be careful about more than pronunciation. Formal situations present their own challenges. Let’s say that your first presentation is in Germany, where your host, the Geschäftsführer (CEO or executive director), Dr. Ernst Kohler, formally introduces you to a roomful of eminent guests. In response, you graciously state: “Thank you very much, Ernst, for that kind introduction. It is an honor and a pleasure to address this illustrious group!”

That may be an appreciative line in Muncie, Indiana, but it’s too informal in Munich. Using the director’s first name in front of such distinguished company is not acceptable. Correct protocol mandates that you say the doctor’s title(s) and last name in public, at least until he invites you to switch to his first name…20 years later!

                    "When you are in the limelight, and all eyes are upon you, committing an
                    appalling faux pas in international etiquette can ruin your credibility."

In some countries, it is a challenge simply to discern which is your host’s first name and last. For example, in China, the family name (or surname), is written first, followed by a middle name (which used to be called a generational name), and then the first name. So if you were speaking at the upcoming Olympics, and the president of China, Hu Jintao, was in the audience, you would address him correctly as President Hu. Not, as one U.S. executive blithely blurted out, President Tao! (He may as well have called him “Bubba.”) Additionally, Chinese wives do not generally take their husband’s surnames – they keep their maiden names. Thus, it is not proper to address Liu Yongqing, the wife of President Hu Jiantao, as Mrs. Hu – she is correctly known as Madam Liu or Madam Liu Yongqing.

There are many more naming conventions in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. One good source is Merriam Webster’s Guide to International Business Communications by Toby Atkinson. Another one – which I co-authored – is Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in More Than Sixty Countries.

2.  Write the date right! As one of your sharply designed PowerPoint slides comes up, you notice that some audience members look puzzled. This may be because you wrote a delivery date, release date or even your birth date with the month first, then the day and then the year. This is an interesting habit in the United States, but one that is not followed worldwide. Writing dates differently has caused innumerable miscommunications on everything from scheduling appointments to closing contracts.

For example, let’s say your slide says: “Delivery by 10/09/08.” That means October 9th, 2008, correct? Not if you are in France, Qatar or Brazil, where they write the day first, then the month, then the year. So for these people, 10/09/08 (or 10.09.08) would mean September 10th, 2008! If you receive irate phone calls in mid-September from such international clients, it is your fault because you have missed your own deadline!

                    "Many cultures disapprove of publicly touching the opposite gender."

In China, Hong Kong or places using materials with certain international formats, the year is listed first, then the month, then the day. That would make 10/09/08 September 8th, 2010, in Beijing. If your Chinese clients demur when you present your offer, it may be that your delivery date is too protracted for them to do business with you.

3.  Don’t Move! Subtle non-verbal communications are the standard in much of Asia, and those minimal gestures transmit tremendous amounts of information. Therefore, if you take the podium and start gesticulating wildly – punching out your points with your fingers in the air, or whacking your right hand into your left palm – your crowd may pay more attention to your body language than your speech content.

Tracey Wilen, an author who specializes in women’s experiences internationally, has written about an anecdote that illustrates this point. According to the story, a female executive was addressing a group in Japan and noticed a gentleman in the first row who seemed to be making faces at her. He squinted, pursed his lips, and grimaced throughout the first half of her presentation. His bizarre facial contortions disturbed the presenter enough that, during the break, she asked her host if there was something wrong with the gentleman in the first row. She thought perhaps he was ill, or suffered from a nervous tic. To her horror, the perpetrator rushed over moments later, bowed abjectly, and declared: “Honorable (Ms. Presenter), I am so sorry if I offended you in any way! I was so mesmerized by your presentation, I had no idea I was imitating you!”

Metaphorically, he was singing along with her animated facial movements! Not good.

Subtlety is best in high-context cultures (like Japan, where much communication depends on cultural awareness). Be discreet in your body language. Actually, avoiding any gestures is prudent until you see your clients use them first.

To complicate matters further, many non-verbal communications have entirely different meanings from one country to another. Here are three standard interactions examined from several cultural perspectives: 

Shaking Hands. In the United States, a firm grip has long been an indicator of strength of character, but styles of handclasps can definitely vary around the world. In Asia, a gentle, extended grip is normal and doesn’t belie the negotiating strength of the participant. Many cultures disapprove of publicly touching the opposite gender. Devout Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews must not touch the opposite sex, so follow your hosts’ lead. 

Bowing. The tradition of bowing is so complex that many Japanese attend classes in the proper protocol of the bow. It is rare that an international visitor would be able to appropriately execute a formal bow (to the right depth, with the correct duration, etc). However, a polite attempt to bow in greeting will be appreciated by your Asian hosts. If you’re the subordinate in the relationship, bow lower. 

Kissing. Most initial business meetings around the world don’t involve a kiss. But after establishing a relationship with clients in the Middle East, Latin America, many parts of the Mediterranean and parts of Africa, there may be times when your clients/friends initiate a brief kiss on either cheek, accompanied by a handshake, hug or pat on the back. Historically, Russian men have been known to participate in a rather intense embrace, which included a kiss or two.

In the Middle East, the same custom can occur between males, followed by an extended period in close proximity. And if you are in Brazil, kisses between the sexes often happen after only one meeting. Wherever you are, be certain that you never back away from a kiss from your host. You do not want to undermine your new business relationship by being coy about your personal space.

Clearly, people around the world are not alike. Different cultures have different customs, priorities, ways of thinking and negotiating. When you are in the limelight, and all eyes are upon you, committing an appalling faux pas in international etiquette can ruin your credibility. Instead, build your credibility by properly addressing your audience, getting your dates right and checking your body language. And when the time is right, go for the big hug.

Terri Morrison is a co-author of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in More Than Sixty Countries and Dun & Bradstreet’s Guide to Doing Business Around the World. For more information, visit

Rude Moves

By Terri Morrison

Below are some gestures you want to avoid when giving a presentation in other countries:

In the United States, making this gesture signifies that “all's well!” However, in France it means “zero”; in Japan it can mean “money”, and in Brazil, Guatemala and Paraguay, it is obscene.

Get the Point?
Pointing at a person with your index finger is considered rude. Different cultures point with their chins, or they extend their entire open hand toward the object.

Thumbs Up!
This seemingly innocuous gesture is fine in America, but it’s rude in the Middle East (don't hitchhike with your thumb out in Israel).  It’s obscene in parts of Africa (e.g. Nigeria), and may mean you want five items in Japan!

“C’mere!” “Come Hither...” or “Here Spot!”
Never beckon anyone by curling your index finger upwards. While this gesture works in the United States (particularly when flirting), it is exceedingly bad manners in many parts of the world.  That is how you summon an animal. Instead, turn your palm down and wave your fingers, or whole hand, in a scooping motion.

Guard your gaze.  Winks can communicate everything from “This is our little secret” in North America to a romantic invitation in Latin America, to a vulgar insult in India or China.

A Smile
A smile is not a universal expression of genuine pleasure around the world. In many parts of Asia, a smile can be used to cover up embarrassment, shock or fury.  And the French only smile when they have a reason; they assume that anyone wearing a constant grin in public is either condescending or feeble-minded.

Showing the soles of your feet, or using your left hand to eat
These are inappropriate behaviors in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa and many other locales.  If in doubt, follow the lead of your hosts and you’ll make the correct gesture.