Canadian Consulting Engineer

Manners, Please

March 1, 1999
By Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., P.Eng

Engineers are trained to focus on technical data, scientific evidence and hard facts. Because their knowledge is governed by laws of physics which are universal, they tend to expect that differences o...

Engineers are trained to focus on technical data, scientific evidence and hard facts. Because their knowledge is governed by laws of physics which are universal, they tend to expect that differences of nationality and culture will not play a major role in the practice of engineering. After all, a car is a car, and it performs the same transportation function the world over.

But since business is conducted with and by people, cross-cultural differences can have a major impact on the practice of consulting engineering. This is particularly true when it comes to selling your consulting services abroad, an activity which is becoming increasingly important. The Canadian market is limited so most consulting engineering firms have to look outside our borders in order to expand. Canada represents only about three per cent of the world’s economy according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and while this is a significant achievement for a country that has only 0.5 per cent of the world population, it means that 97 per cent of the economic action takes place elsewhere.

Going abroad offers many opportunities but it also brings new challenges, since working for foreign clients and with foreign associates or subconsultants increases the probability of cross-cultural misunderstandings. This is the first of two articles on the potential issues and difficulties that you may encounter while expanding overseas. We start with etiquette.

Etiquette, or social manners, can seem a small matter in the greater scheme of things, but can have a big impact on how well you succeed or fail in obtaining work overseas. The following are just three examples.*

— An American chief executive officer lost a major client when he brought a dozen red roses to his client’s wife. In Germany, offering red roses to a woman is tantamount to saying: “I love you.”

— An American banker lost a French client by drinking her beer straight out of the bottle during a dinner in a five-star restaurant.

— During a major sales presentation in the Middle East, a marketing manager heard the calls for prayer of the muezzin. Finding it disturbing, he said to his Muslim prospective client: “Can’t somebody shut those guys up?” and instantly lost the sales opportunity.

Etiquette assigns a meaning to gestures and places expectations on people to behave a certain way in given situations. Etiquette is, however, specific to each culture. Each society has developed different ways to handle social interactions and it is difficult to argue that one way is better than the other. Because each culture values its own etiquette rules and considers them as normal, however, it is usually best to remember the axiom, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and follow the customs favoured by the client. The rules can affect many aspects of business life, from greetings, to introductions, gifts, clothing and meals.

Pleased to meet you

As the saying goes, “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.” While this axiom remains true abroad, how you make that first impression is country-specific.

Introductions. In Canada and in the U.S., if you walk into a room that contains people you have not met, you are expected to walk up, extend your hand and introduce yourself. In countries like England, such behaviour is considered improper. There you are expected to be introduced by a common friend or acquaintance.

Greetings. In Canada and many western countries greeting consists of shaking hands. Bowing is a more common form of greeting in Asia, while African countries have their own way of saying hello. In Namibia, for example, greeting consists in placing one’s right hand on someone’s left shoulder.

More critical in long-term business relations are gestures that might be proper in one country and improper in another. In France, after shaking hands, colleagues ask a few questions about each other’s personal life –something like “How are you?” and “Did you have a good evening yesterday?” followed by a short discussion of what they did the evening before. Omitting such steps is interpreted by French people as a sign of distance, coldness, and animosity. English Canadian consulting engineers greeting French colleagues the English Canadian way with a brusque “Morning” start the day with puzzled counterparts

Exchanging business cards. Whereas in Canada and the U.S. the exchange of business cards has no special meaning or protocol attached to it, in Japan, it is an important part of the introduction of two people. The Japanese consider that a business card is an extension of the person who gives it, so they treat it with much respect. Cards are held with both hands when they are given to the other person, with print facing the recipient, and they are read in detail. Japanese usually comment on the degree qualifications and position of the person to whom they are introduced, and expect the other person to reciprocate. Simply sliding one’s card on the table so that it arrives in front of the other person is not surprisingly considered improper.

Grub’s up

Meals play a major role in business. Stories of deals made over the dining table are countless. But because proper table manners have been codified over time, meals may also result in a cultural faux pas. Here are important points to consider:

In the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Canada, the main reason people have a meal is to replenish their energy. But in countries like France and Italy, the main purpose is to socialize. Sharing lunch or dinner represents an opportunity to get to know other people. Meals are also considered as a work of art, something to be appreciated and commented upon.

In North America many meetings are conducted over lunch, with people speaking and eating at the same time. In countries like France and Italy, there is no such thing as a working lunch, and the business meal typically lasts much longer than here–up to two hours. Sandwiches are often not considered a meal. An offer to order in sandwiches and have a working lunch to keep the discussion going could backfire. Your French or Italian prospective clients are likely to consider it as poor treatment, and the time you save will probably not be worth the bad will that you generate.

What should you talk about over the soup? Major differences exist over what topics of conversation are considered suitable for meals. In North America, business is usually the main focus of the conversation since this is the reason for eating together in the first place. But when getting to know the other people is the main objective, much of the discussion revolves around other issues. For example, in France, business topics are brought up only between cheese and dessert (“entre la poire et le fromage”). For the rest of the time, talk is all about things like art, politics, the economy, and, of course, the food.

The way food is ordered is a direct reflection of countries’ different values, and consulting engineers can learn a lot about the decision-making process of their prospective clients by observing how meals are handled. In Canada and the U.S. each person orders a dish for himself or herself, and food sharing is limited. Commands are taken in sequential order, and the waiter will start at one end of the table, avoiding singling out any person. This ordering process reflects the individualistic and egalitarian values that prevail in North America.

In countries like France, the person responsible for organizing the dining party often “centralizes” the orders of everyone and places one order with the waiter. When the number of people makes this centralization impossible, the waiter will take individual orders, starting from the most senior person. Sharing and tasting other people’s dishes is common; many restaurants will have dishes for two or four on their menu. In particular, wine is almost always shared (very few restaurants offer wine by the glass). This practice reflects the fact that the French attach more emphasis to groups and hierarchy plays an important role.

In China, on the other hand, the mo
st senior host asks the most senior guest to select dishes from the menu (including liquor). In most cases, the guest refrains from taking the initiative and asks the host to make the decision. After going back and forth a few times, the group will eventually reach a consensus and the host will place an order for everyone. This discussion often overlooks the wishes of junior participants since they are expected to agree silently with their superiors. All dishes are placed on a rotating tray at the centre of the table, and everyone takes from all the dishes. These dining customs reflect the fact that China is a more traditional society where, again, group values prevail and hierarchy is important.

Observant consulting engineers can learn from meal and restaurant practices. In the U.S., and to a lesser degree in Canada, for example, each restaurant dish comes with several options because we expect choices. In countries like Germany and France, dishes are almost always offered as complete packages. German and French clients do not expect choices; instead, they expect the chef to have figured out the best combination of ingredients. Similarly, when buying consulting services, they often do not expect offerings structured with many options. Generally they expect consulting engineers to give them the best solution to their problem, with limited input from the clients.

What you choose to eat can also send a message. Various food combinations have become the accepted norm in different countries. Think of the many ways people have of eating French fries. English Canadians add vinegar, Quebecers add gravy and cheese curd to make poutine, Americans add ketchup, the French use mustard, and Belgians go for mayonnaise.

Each culture considers that its combination is the best and that the others are to be avoided. Travelling consultants should keep these preferences in mind. When an American businessman asked for ketchup for his Chateaubriand in a fancy Parisian restaurant he was expelled by the chef, causing much embarrassment to his French business partners. Try to avoid making comments about food combinations to which you are not accustomed (like ketchup on rice or cereals in caf au lait) since these combinations might be perfectly natural to your hosts.

Different cultures also have developed different ideas of what is food and what is not. French people eat escargots, rabbits, and pigeons, while Chinese people eat snakes and dogs. There are also different views of which parts of animals are considered edible. French people eat tongue, heart, tripe and the brain of some animals, while Afghans eat eyes. Again, the safe policy is to not make any comment.

Evidently, going for dinner or lunch with your potential client overseas can be more complicated than you would think. And apart from the above issues, you have to consider other obvious and very important questions such as whether alcohol should be part of the meal, or what the seating arrangements should be.

Etiquette reaches into all aspects of life. What clothes you wear, on what occasion, and of what colour have meanings attached to them. What gifts you should make in a certain situation is another issue. Presents made at the wrong time can create much embarrassment and can even be interpreted as attempted bribery. Not giving a gift when it is expected, for example, can have dire repercussions for business. How much physical contact between people is proper, or what posture is appropriate in certain circumstances, can also be critical. In Indonesia, for example, it is considered improper when you are sitting to cross your leg and reveal the sole of your shoe.

In short, etiquette reaches into all our social relations with other people and packs more psychological weight than we might like to think. For most of the time we do not give such matters much thought because they are second nature when we are on home ground. But when a consulting engineers goes abroad to do business, it becomes extremely important to be sensitive to cultural differences and the do’s and don’ts of the country you are visiting. Some resources to help are listed below.CCE


Books: Two series of books, one entitled Passport Country X and the other Business Country X: A Practical Guide to Understanding Country X Business Culture, cover many aspects of business etiquette. Both are published by World Trade Press, San Rafael, California.

Web: Web of Culture ( offers several helpful materials including a list of people around the world who are willing to answer questions about their cultures.

* “Old World Order: Planning to take your company abroad? Careful, the rules are different over there.” Sandy Asirianaham, Success, October 1998, pp. 73-75.

Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., P.Eng., is president of ITAP Canada, a cross-cultural training and consulting organization located in Thornhill, Ontario.

If you have any extraordinary or amusing experiences about working abroad, we’d love to hear them. E-mail the editor,


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