The First 30 Seconds Count

Author: 
Roman Kowalski, Vice President of Marketing, TravelGearLab.com

The tone of any business meeting, sales call or introduction is often set within the first 30 seconds and guided by how the visiting party greets the host. An incorrect greeting, a handshake that lingers for too long, or a bungled attempt at observing local custom could taint the entire meeting and spoil the deal.

Business leaders, when visiting business associates or prospective customers from another country, often look to meetings between heads of state as an example, and the right greeting can mean the difference between a successful deal and a failed one.

When President Trump greeted Japanese Prime Minister Abe at the White House early this year, Trump grabbed Abe’s hand and pumped it furiously like he was trying to sell him a used car. The extended and vigorous handshake raised some eyebrows among those who study protocol.

Strictly speaking, President Trump was not wrong in shaking hands with the Prime Minister at the White House, as when traveling to another country, it is proper to adhere to the local greeting customs of the host, and in this case, Trump was host and Abe was visitor. We would expect President Trump to bow were he to visit Japan. Despite Japan not being a hand-shaking culture, Abe – as would any Japanese businessperson visiting the U.S. – expected, and was prepared for a handshake. That said, the handshake itself should have been a little more subdued and without the two-hand pat.

Japanese businessmen and politicians are quite familiar with Western customs, and will often greet Westerners with a traditional American greeting when visiting the U.S., just as a savvy American businessperson would greet a Japanese counterpart with a bow when visiting their Tokyo headquarters. 

Take the lead from your counterpart in the greeting

The “host rule” notwithstanding, some flexibility is always in order when greeting a business counterpart, regardless of where the meeting takes place. When visiting business associates in another country, a good approach is to take the lead from your counterpart, and be prepared for both a Western and a native greeting. If they are familiar with Western customs, they may well take the guesswork out of the meeting for you.

When George H.W. Bush met His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, it was with a respectful handshake and a modest bow. The late King, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was quite familiar with Western customs and immediately extended his hand to the President for a brief handshake, very considerately taking all the guesswork out of the meeting and giving President Bush a subtle cue that the Western greeting was acceptable. At the same time the King and the President were shaking hands, Mrs. Bush shook hands with Queen Sirikit, and then President Bush greeted Queen Sirikit with a mutual bow.

Were the President and the King to observe Thai tradition strictly, the proper greeting would have been a mutual “wai,” or the act of bowing slightly while pressing one’s hands together and raising them to one’s head. Both heads of state would have wai’d simultaneously to indicate equality between the two men. Thai custom usually dictates that the person with inferior status should wai first.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, also quite familiar with Western culture, has always been flexible in greeting foreign heads of state, and can be seen alternately shaking hands, bowing, offering a “wai” and even touching President Obama warmly on his shoulders.

The hybrid greeting and reciprocal diplomacy

When President Obama met Japanee Emperor Akihito, we saw a perfect example of reciprocal diplomacy. Obama bowed in front of the emperor, and the emperor extended his hand for a handshake, so both countries’ greeting customs were followed at the same time. Respecting the greeting customs of other countries is standard fare for most presidents. President George W. Bush was seen holding hands with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah when the Prince visited Bush’s ranch – something that in Saudi culture is seen as a basic gesture of friendship between two men of equal status. President Nixon, in opening up the “bamboo curtain” and establishing relationships with China, bowed to Chairman Mao, and President Reagan bowed to Queen Elizabeth.

Being host to a foreign business executive requires not only diplomacy, but also hospitality. In perhaps one of the most extreme cases of hospitality ever recorded, early Baha’i history tells of a day when soldiers came to the house of a Baha’i, a religion that suffered great persecution in what was then known as Persia, and demanded that one of the guests should be given up for execution, according to the warrant. The host took his guest’s place and died in his stead.

Also, a little linguistic flair is always appreciated, and saying at least a few words in your host’s native language will get you a lot of points – but be careful with pronunciation and approach this with caution. Rather than simply looking up “nice to meet you” in a language book, ask a native – with Asian languages especially, the tonal quality of words are difficult to convey in print, and you may well wind up unintentionally saying something embarrassing. This is why someone from Hong Kong, when visiting Thailand, should never say “good morning” (jiu sahn) in their native Cantonese, as this sounds like something terribly rude in Thai.

There are endless considerations in a successful meeting with a new customer or business associate, but those first 30 seconds may well be the most important time of all.

Roman Kowalski, Vice President of Marketing for TravelGearLab.com, is a world traveler and expert on business travel. His favorite cities in the world are Krakow, Bangkok and Macau, and he currently lives in Indiana with his wife Lula and their French bulldog, Pola.