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Six successful executives share the moment they embarrassed themselves in an overseas business meeting

Travelling for business is an exciting time, but with new places and people comes local customs not everyone knows about.

Cultural faux pas or mistakes in business etiquette can be highly embarrassing and also costly for your business.

For example, if you “illegally” cross the road in Singapore — within 50 metres of a crossing zone — you will be fined up to S$1,000 ($992) or get 3 months in jail. Oorder a glass of wine during a business lunch in the states many executives simply won’t take you seriously.

With this in mind we asked some top executives about mistakes they’ve made on business trips. While not everyone to had a story to tell (or would admit to it), here are six who’ve had an overseas business blooper and what they learned from the experience.

The Japanese Tsunami in 2011. Photo: U.S. Navy via Getty Images.

1. Cholena Orr, director of Human Capital

“I used to run a monthly talent acquisition workshop via webinar with my colleagues across Asia Pacific. In the check in with participants I asked my Japanese colleagues why they had missed the last workshop. They had to explain that it had been the day of the Tsunami which was on March 11, 2011.

“I felt terrible that I hadn’t connected the dates. The Tsunami was such a heart breaking tragedy and I should have paid my respects privately before the call. From then on I always paid more attention to the cultures of the people I worked with and took time to honour their culture and the events in their home country.

“My Japanese colleagues were very graceful in accepting my apology and I will never forget this important lesson.”

2. Stephanie Christopher, CEO of The Executive Connection

“I flew to Johannesburg to meet with the managing director of our South African office. What started as a sore throat on the flight ended in bronchitis and no voice at all when I stepped off the plane, as well as feeling very tired and lethargic.

“I had a full day of important back to back meetings with the executive team there that day and all I could do was nod my head and try to stay awake. The MD insisted I rest at his house prior to my flight out and I left Johannesburg without anyone hearing a single word out of me.

“A few months later I met with another executive from their office and they said to me ‘Wow, you actually do have a voice!’”

3. Richard Matthews, Chief Executive Officer, Leda Security Products

“I was in Mumbai seeing a key supplier some years back with a case of Delhi Belly. My hosts were aware of my predicament which is not uncommon in India so were most understanding when I had to excuse myself momentarily. What was embarrassing when emerging from the single factory bathroom was to have all twenty executive and factory staff there to see how I was. Some aspects of privacy would appear to be a western concept.”

4. Jack Graham, former CEO of W.R. Carpenter South Pacific

“Some years ago during my first business trip to Japan I made a number of cultural mistakes when visiting business partners in that country. When visiting a major factory in Tokyo we were waiting in front of the elevator when I stepped forward and pushed the ‘up’ button. This was culturally incorrect as we should have waited for the person whose job it was to push the button. She came up soon after that and was most upset that I pushed the button.

“On another occasion in Yokohama sitting in the driving rain at a ship launching ceremony, which was due to start at 8am, I asked at 7.50am why we couldn’t start since everything was ready and everyone was present. This was also a no-no as 8am means 8am. So we all sat there getting soaked waiting for the clock to click over for 10 minutes. My frustration at this was not understood by the host.”

5. Christian Mischler, Co-founder & COO, HotelQuickly

“There are cultural differences which I had to deal with, when I was working in Thailand. We had meeting and I was at the whiteboard, waiting for people to shout ideas – nothing. Even after a year of working with the team and showing them that there is no stupid or wrong answer, there was no ‘losing face’, they were still too scared of just shouting some wild ideas.

“When I suggested two alternatives, they told me both were good ideas (and probably thought both ideas are ridiculous). It’s something you have to keep in mind when doing business overseas. What is your perceived status, and will you get the input / feedback that you’re looking for due to some invisible barriers?

6. Zaki Ameer, founder of Dream Design Property

“During my last trip to Dubai, I was in the middle of a very important business meeting trying to win a deal and one of the foreigners present made a reference to ham without realising the offense they were causing; the consumption of pork is not allowed for Muslims especially in the Middle East! Ultimately, the remainder of the meeting was very awkward and the deal went pear shaped because of this. On another occasion, during the month of fasting in Dubai, I asked for a glass of water and this was a big faux-pas!”

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