Don Worthington

Chester business leaders get lesson in international etiquette

Pamela Eyring, right, president of The Protocol School of Washington, talks with members of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce following its annual meeting.
Pamela Eyring, right, president of The Protocol School of Washington, talks with members of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce following its annual meeting.

When Pamela Eyringarrived in Columbia in 2008 with her engineer husband, the Ohio native quickly realized, “I was a transplant.”

Things were different in South Carolina.

People were friendly, people were respectful and people were casual.

She soon embraced the ways of the South, longing for them each time business took her away from home.

Yet, as she traveled the world, Eyring realized that not everyone responds to a Minnie Pearl-like “Howdy!” a clammy handshake and a bear hug embrace in the same way.

The very things she has learned to love about the South – and the U.S. in general – can be deal breakers in other cultures.

Her advice?

▪ Be more formal when conducting business – especially when conducting business with a foreign company. The United States is the second-most casual country in the world, she said, behind only Australia.

▪ Know communication styles, sometime silence is not a sign of disinterest but of thoughtful reflection.

▪ Know the importance of rank and status, and be respectful of a person’s title.

▪ Dress on the side of formality.

▪ Understand body language; various cultures respond differently to closeness, gestures and touching.

That’s just a brief summary of what has become Eyring’s business. She is president of The Protocol School of Washington, an international firm that teaches etiquette and protocol. The firm has offices in Washington, D.C., Dubai and Eyring’s adopted hometown of Columbia.

Last week, she shared her quick course with members of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce. Rural South Carolina might seem an odd choice for her expertise, but Eyring had an attentive audience as the business leaders of Chester County realize the important of cultural awareness. The county and the region continue to successfully recruit foreign firms such as Giti Tire, based in Singapore, and Sun Fibers, based in China.

While the economic development deals have been sealed, each of the multi-national firms coming here has needs that will be met by numerous local contractors and suppliers.

Eyring’s own experiences showed just how important knowing another culture can be.

Several years ago, the government of Dubaiapproached her about offering her etiquette and protocol programs in that city.

The business conversations were going well, Eyring said, until Dubai officials stopped talking to her. She couldn’t understand what she had done wrong.

She called a friend with expertise in dealing with Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates that has become an international business hub.

“Go to Dubai,” the friend said.

Eyring asked again, “What should I do?’

“Go to Dubai,” was the response.

“Why?” she asked, admitting she was a bit wary, even scared about the prospect – not to mention the cost of flying there.

“Because they don’t know you.”

That was the critical lesson. Eyring understood that in some cultures, establishing a relationship is a prerequisite to doing business.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” she said. “Now I have an office in Dubai.”

Eyring also offered some advice on a business practice most Americans take for granted: the exchange of business cards. We pull them from our wallet, exchange them, scribble a note on them and put them back in our wallet, pocket or pocketbook – all no-no’s, she said.

The exchange of business cards is often one of the most important steps in making a first impression, she said. It some countries is a great moment of significance and ceremony.

Imagine, you are waiting to exchange cards. Would you really want to get a card that has been in someone’s wallet, getting hot, sticky, maybe even smelly?

No, she said. Get a small case to carry your cards in.

Then, consider what your card says. Company name, your name, title, such as owner?

No, Eyring says, especially if you are courting international business. Company name, your name and a title that reflects position and stature. Instead of merely being the “owner” your are the president, or the CEO.

And, especially if you are courting international business, have “two-faced” business cards, with the information in English on one side and the language of your prospect or host on the other. When presenting the card, make sure the prospect’s native language is face up. A message in their language instantly conveys consideration and respect, Eyring said.

When talking with an international prospect, keep the card in your hand. Shoving it into your pocket can be considered a sign of disrespect. If you must write on the card, don’t do it in the presence of the person who presented it to you.

“Learning and unlearning can be a painful process,” she said, but it’s often the difference between making a deal – or not.