Know European customs and cultures

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For successful cross-border business shift

THUMB RULE: Do not discuss business before the wine and cheese.
THUMB RULE: Do not discuss business before the wine and cheese.

Mohan Murti

By being aware of the differences, and making small adaptations to style, Indians relocating to Europe can accomplish objectives much more effectively and forge some richly satisfying relationships with people and businesses in Europe.

If business success is the delicious dessert that gives the finishing stroke to a good meal, cross-culture appreciation is the silver platter that adds to the setting.

Globalisation is pushing Indian companies and their managers across more borders. Taking a post overseas can broaden the mind, enhance the resumé, and swell the bottomline. While international experience is priceless, good preparation is imperative for the success of any cross-border business shift.

Offshoring and business outsourcing opportunities are intensifying in Europe. Indian companies have started acquiring firms overseas earnestly. Many of them, especially in the IT sector, are rushing executives to overseas postings, without adequate preparation. Forlornly, Indian managers in alien lands note that complexity and inability to adjust to a new culture increases the risk of failure.

Cross-cultural training

It pays to delve into the customs and cultures of a new country before relocating. Also, more and more companies in India and Europe are providing relocation services and offering cross-cultural training covering everything from language skills to the intricacies of local etiquette, such as whether or not to tip a taxi driver for executives and their families moving abroad. I have found that companies that carefully handpick and prepare their managers to quickly adapt to a new culture are the ones that achieve higher success rate in international business assignments.

Either you are an Indian company expanding into European markets, or your company is acquiring or, has been acquired by one. Maybe, you're courting a buyer from Europe. In any case, you want to make a good impression. From the European perspective, while Indians are highly respected for "brain power" and intellect, we are thought to be somewhat less than cultivated.

And it is a fact that Indian businesses often place more stock in talent and skills than in polish and style Indian managers who are brilliant strategists but answer cell-phone calls rudely or type in their personal digital assistant, while having serious business discussions. And, there are talented computer wizards from with their unkempt appearance, earn outrageous salaries and go to work in shabby clothes and untidy shoes.

In Europe, dress, manners and demeanour are important. But as business becomes more global and as businesses become more competitive, even the most casual Indians are learning that there are benefits to having the more cordial manners of their European counterparts. In Europe there are differences aside from the obvious ones of language. Here are some conventions and standards of etiquette in Europe that are puzzling to Indians at first, but can spare you some tongue-tied moments..

No Casual Fridays

Unlike in India, there are no "casual Fridays" in Europe. A dark-colour coat and tie with a light shirt for men; and more formal skirt and pantsuits for women are

de rigeur

. Anyone wearing something less formal might be seen as someone who does not take his business very seriously.

Titles and Introductions

In Europe, calling someone by their first name (unless invited to do so) is considered presumptuous and too familiar for business interactions. Courtesy titles and last names are the norm.

Introductions are very important, and they follow the old rules of introducing the "less important" person to the more important one.


You will find that there are differences in structure and usage between Indian English and "European business English".

The structure of sentences is a little different. The adjectives often come after the noun.

Take these differences in stride, and try to adapt your style of speaking and writing to the people you're doing business with. It is much more effective to communicate in the way the majority of people are comfortable with than to try to change things to the style you may be more used to.

Organisational Philosophy

Europeans are very traditional and people are more obsequious toward those who have "earned their stripes". It is fine to put forth ideas if you are not the "top dog", the only difference is in the fashion of communication.

It is much more effective to give suggestions than to pronounce opinions. Managers are expected to be active participants. Otherwise, they may appear to be uninterested or not knowledgeable.

Admit Mistakes

When working in teams admitting to a fault quickly and emphatically immediately takes the antagonism out of a problem, and everyone's focus turns more quickly to solution- rather than fault-finding.

Similarly, passing along credit to the team is even more effective than taking it for yourself.


In Europe, giving compliments is a perfectly acceptable and even expected mode of interaction. Compliments can be simple admiring someone's clothes or complimenting someone on their proficiency with the computer or, even the mastery of English language! Many Europeans for whom English is a second language, particularly like to be complimented on their grasp of English

Differences of Opinion

In Europe, differences of opinion are handled more graciously. If you disagree with someone, it is typically more effective to start with the points you agree on and work toward the differences. Handling differences of opinion in a more diplomatic manner will be much more effective in Europe.


Indians often "multi-task" answering cell phone calls and pages, or responding to e-mails on their digital devices or taking notes, at meetings.

Meetings in Europe are generally more relaxed. Introductions are never neglected, and meetings often start on time.

Often, the initial minutes of a meeting is used to set the ground rules, determining the purpose and expected outcome of the meeting, and so forth, especially when people from several cultures are involved.

People participating in meetings in Europe are expected to be involved in the conversation, not buried in their digital device or steno pad. They demonstrate interest and attentiveness to the person speaking with their body language and by asking relevant questions.


In Europe, dining is a very relaxed event. When dining with Europeans in Europe, it is best to take your host's advice in the selection of food and wine at a restaurant they know well. If you are a vegetarian or have any food restrictions, inform the host well in advance.

One does not talk about business immediately. Let your host set the tone and the pace of the meal. Several courses and a significant amount of time may pass before business topics are brought up.

Relax and enjoy, and of course, compliment the parts of the experience you enjoy. The rule of thumb is "do not discuss business before the wine and cheese".

By being aware of the differences, and making small adaptations to style, Indians relocating to Europe can accomplish objectives much more effectively and forge some richly satisfying relationships with people and businesses in Europe.

As Peter Drucker said: "Tomorrow's business challenges are less technical than they are cultural".

(The author is former Europe Director, CII, and lives in Cologne, Germany. Feedback may be sent to

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 5, 2006)
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