WHY BUSINESS TRAVELLERS FORGET THEIR MANNERS WHEN ABROAD
DO PEOPLE become less considerate when they travel for business? Gulliver was mulling over this recently, after he was phoned by the PA of someone who was travelling to London and wanted to arrange a meeting. He would like to meet you at your offices at 6pm on Thursday, announced the assistant.
Gulliver is no shirker, but this got right under his skin. It is perfectly fine to ask for a meeting outside normal office hours. But normally such a request is preluded by apologies-in-advance, or a lament about a tight schedule. This, on the other hand felt like an expectation.
As someone who welcomes business travellers to the office regularly, it is fair to say that the large majority are considerate guests. But a fair few aren’t. Business people inhabit a different mental sphere when they travel, compared with when they are back at the office.
There is a good reason for this. Travellers have limited time in a city, and a small window of opportunity to get things done. So they often like to pack out every available hour to meet with people. What is more, travelling abroad is a break from the norm, so some adopt a mindset that says everyone else should be treating their arrival as a special event. So meetings are arranged later and for longer than necessary. (And rather than eat alone in a strange city, why not rope in a business acquaintance to relieve the loneliness?) But for those of us welcoming a contact from overseas, the day is just like any other: a long commute, a stressful day at the office, kids to collect, television to watch and sleep to catch up on. And so this can be a source of (almost always unspoken) tension.
There are other traps of impoliteness that the business traveller can fall into. Mostly these are to do with a lack of cultural awareness. In Gulliver’s experience, for example, Americans are keen on breakfast meetings but don’t like wine with lunch. So when they visit London they schedule a brainstorming session over scrambled eggs and order fizzy water when you meet them at noon. Neither prospect, by and large, appeals to Europeans. Europeans on the other hand, have been known to dress too immodestly for parts of the Middle East and Asia.
Or worse. Marie-Therese Claes, a professor specialising in etiquette at CEMS, a business programme, relays the story of a newly appointed Swedish ambassador meeting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, in Tehran for the first time. The hapless diplomat crossed his legs, showing the president the sole of his foot—an insult in that part of the world. (“The ambassador’s actions are undiplomatic and impolite,” raged one Iranian website. “Such behavior deviates from diplomatic and international norms.”) No one suspects the sleight was intentional. But, says Ms Claes, it should always be incumbent on the guest to make sure he is up to speed with what is expected of him.
“Should” is the important word here. After all, business relationships are usually unequal: one party normally holds the power. Buyers can get away with rudeness more easily than sellers. In Gulliver’s line of work, when tapping up a source for a story, for example, it quite frankly doesn’t matter if he steals the food from your plate. But when a public-relations type offers to take you for lunch—even American ones—you should never be afraid to order something fizzy that doesn’t come in a Perrier-shaped bottle.