Everyone in international trade knows it’s easy to make a mistake in a foreign country that could cost you a relationship.

For instance, patting someone on the back for a job well done is offensive in one place and expected in another. Eating with your left hand in India or parts of the Middle East, or even waving with it is inappropriate. And in the Philippines, summoning someone by pointing and then curling your finger is so offensive you can be arrested for it.

Such social misunderstandings can also cost you money.

In Thailand, for example, an ICAT Logistics client was told that everything was going well at the manufacturing facility and no delays were expected in product delivery. That was not true, but it was an acceptable custom to save face rather than disappoint a client.

“We’ve seen it in other places around the world: Mislead today, ask for forgiveness tomorrow,” says Dan Cser, owner ICAT Logistics Detroit. “That’s why we think international industrial cargo shippers benefit greatly by having a partner on the ground who knows all the ins and outs of doing business, no matter where you are in the world.”

Nothing can squelch a deal faster than a social blunder or quick assumption that doesn’t take cross-cultural differences to heart.

A company that tells you it will prepare your freight for shipment in China will have a completely different packaging standard than a company in Germany, for example. In one country you may get crates that are seaworthy; in another you may get flimsy cardboard wrapping. It’s important to clarify and ask for details — but do it respectfully.

Charging headlong into a confrontation with a client who is not working to your expectations will get you nowhere in many cultures where losing your temper, speaking harshly in public or demeaning a worker is the quickest way to turn a client against you.

Even an email that doesn’t follow protocol can cause problems, says Cser, who has lived in Asia, Europe and North America and managed cargo shipments around the world for 35 years.

In many cultures it is essential to begin a correspondence with a personal greeting; business comes later. In some, wearing shorts or showing the bottoms of your feet can be a major gaffe.

Here are some basic guidelines to avoid the pitfalls in cross-cultural trade:

  • Show respect to and personal interest in your client
  • Avoid harsh or foul language
  • Engage local suppliers to represent your interests and rely on them to guide you.
  • Research the culture before you enter into a deal and do appropriate due diligence and a risk assessment before engaging a representative overseas.
  • Ask questions early to avoid unpleasant surprises later. Understand that laws vary from country to country.
  • Train your employees, management and suppliers how you expect them to do business in foreign locations.
  • Maintain responsibility for finance, legal and compliance. Just as you may not know the rules in another country, your supplier overseas may not understand U.S. rules.
  • Show up. Making face-to-face connections breaks down barriers and helps cement understanding between business partners, no matter where they may be.

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