Business etiquette

For no particular reason I happened upon and then started reading the Economist’s guide to business etiquette in various great cities in the world. Reading this one on Paris was a little like visiting there again – so I post it over the fold for your amusement and reverie. Then I thought I’d post the equivalent advice on visiting Sydney. It’s all over the fold.

Paris

France is at heart a very formal society. The American habit of being on first-name terms from the start tends to shock. When in doubt, err on the side of formality.

“¢ Parisians have an exaggerated reputation (among the French, as well as visitors) for rudeness. The trick is to engage them in the formal ritual of French politeness¢â¬âbe sure to say bonjour (good day), merci (thank you) and au revoir (goodbye). It works wonders, especially in shops, even if it does turn the purchase of a baguette into a five-minute social exchange.

“¢ That said, some expats living in Paris insist that local rudeness is a real blight on their otherwise idyllic lifestyle.

“¢ In a business setting it is always advisable to dress up rather than down. Senior businessmen (and politicians) are invariably immaculate. So, too, are the few women who have defied France’s still-prevalent male chauvinism and reached senior positions. Few people have yet discovered “dress-down Fridays”.

“¢ In business settings, kissing on both cheeks as a form of greeting is confined only to men and women who know each other reasonably well¢â¬âand have a roughly equal status. The safest bet for business visitors is to shake hands. If the visit is to the factory floor, the workers will expect to have their hands shaken, too.

“¢ Be careful not to foist on to your hosts “Anglo-Saxon” (the favourite French term for the Americans and British) notions of what is “politically correct”: you may be viewed as naive, arrogant or simply weird. It is considered entirely natural to pat someone on the back, or have some other innocent form of physical contact in the office.

“¢ Rather than labour steadily throughout the day, Parisians tend to condense their work into short periods of time. Thus, do not expect your contact to be at their desk when you are trying to reach them (and certainly not on Friday afternoons). The same rule applies to the seasons. May is a quiet month, due to a glut of bank holidays, and in August, les grands d©parts to the countryside ensure that the capital is virtually empty.

“¢ The French notion of time-keeping is far from intuitive. The current trend is to begin business meetings on time (although there are frequent lapses). So, too, for lunch on a work day (not least because restaurants get annoyed otherwise).

“¢ A private dinner is entirely different: it is simply rude to be on time. Don’t turn up at 8pm for an 8pm dinner and expect anyone to be pleased to see you. Most Parisians won’t arrive until 9pm. Conversely, it would be rude to overstay your welcome: once one couple leaves a private dinner party, the others will follow suit. This means that most private dinners begin at 8.30-9.00pm and are over by midnight.

“¢ Grabbing a sandwich for lunch at one’s desk confirms Parisians’ worst stereotypes of Anglo-Saxons. Lunch, a sit-down affair, is treated as a real break from the office, and conversation over food is rarely work-related.

“¢ To refuse wine at lunch would be permissible, but seen as slightly odd. To refuse wine at a dinner could be considered rude. Whatever the circumstances, it is extremely bad form to drink too much. Equally, it is still bad form to object to a post-prandial cigarette or cigar.

“¢ Cigarette smoking is definitely on the decline¢â¬âthough reality mocks the law that for several years has required restaurants to have non-smoking areas.

“¢ In a private setting, a small gift for your hosts will be welcome, as will a note of thanks afterwards. Flowers or champagne are best (err on the side of quality). Except among close friends, wine is a bad idea since the host will feel insulted if your wine is cheap or embarrassed if it puts his to shame.

Sydney

Americans and Europeans are often struck by Sydneysiders’ easy-going, laid-back manner. But Australia’s business and financial capital has a few codes of behaviour which can fly in the face of its image. Here are a few suggestions for first-time visitors.

“¢ Sydneysiders start their working days increasingly early. Working breakfasts and 8am meetings are becoming the norm.

“¢ Your contacts are likely to go straight to the point of the meeting without much preliminary chit-chat. Don’t be taken aback by this: Australians tend to be courteous but direct in discussions. Likewise, do not be fooled by such directness¢â¬âAustralians can be as sensitive as anyone else if you assume too much or appear to be taking them for granted.

“¢ Sometimes looks can be deceptive, especially with older people. Younger executives are often indistinguishable from their counterparts in London or New York. But older men and women, who may look weathered and windblown from years of entertaining on yachts or at expensive beach houses, can be among the most influential people in town.

“¢ Dress codes are fairly relaxed. Ties, suits and jackets are usually expected during business hours for men, and smart business wear for women. But outside of these hours, even if you are still with colleagues, you may feel out of place in a tie. At weekends and during the summer months (December-March), relaxed clothing rules.

“¢ Australians have a dry, laconic sense of humour that relies heavily on irony, one more akin to British than American humour. Avoid taking some jokes too literally. You can make a joke about most things, as long as it’s in good taste. Political leaders of all hues are fair game. The University of New South Wales (website) offers visiting overseas students a crash course in understanding Australian irony.

“¢ Don’t take yourself too seriously. Self-importance doesn’t go down well in egalitarian Sydney. At the same time, the old Australian dislike of “tall poppies” (annoyingly clever, hard-working and successful folk) is fading as more people get the chance to become tall poppies themselves.

“¢ Sydneysiders have a strong sense of their city’s importance vis- -vis the rest of Australia. When you meet them over a drink or dinner after a first business meeting, they will happily explain who’s who in the worlds of politics, business and sport. Property prices are a surefire way of getting a conversation going.

“¢ On the cultural front, it may help to be aware that some of Australia’s most famous exports, such as the actors Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe (who Australia claims as one if its own, conveniently ignoring his New Zealand origins) and Barry Humphries, and the film directors Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and Baz Luhrmann, all come from or have homes in Sydney.

“¢ Wine, and the Australian industry’s export success can be another talking point with business types, so make sure you know the main wine-producing regions: Hunter Valley (New South Wales), Barossa Valley (South Australia), Yarra Valley (Victoria), Margaret River (Western Australia). This is more likely to happen over dinner; long and liquid lunches are a thing of the past.

“¢ For a city that likes enjoying itself, Sydney puts up with more restrictive liquor laws than Melbourne, its old rival. Finding a way around them is a game Sydneysiders have been playing since early colonial days, when rum was a form of currency. In some bars, you are expected to order food with your drink; waiters usually ask if you “intend” to eat, then leave it at that when you answer “yes.”

“¢ The government leaders of Australia’s six states are called premiers. Do not call them prime ministers (as some visitors incorrectly do, including Margaret Thatcher during an official visit, to the barely disguised irritation of her hosts; she later explained she had difficulty with “French titles”). There is only one prime minister, in Canberra, the national capital.

“¢ Many visitors, and even some Australians, remain confused about who the country’s head of state is. It is Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. The governor-general (currently Major-General Michael Jeffrey) is her Australian representative, and not the “effective head of state”, as John Howard, the prime minister (and fervent monarchist) once claimed.

“¢ An important annual event worth knowing about is the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. It leaves from Sydney Harbour every Boxing Day and the first yachts arrive in Hobart, Tasmania, a few days later. This is a huge event that attracts entrants from all over the world, packing the foreshores of Sydney Harbour¢â¬âand the harbour itself¢â¬âwith sightseers. See the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s website for more details.

“¢ The Australian summer’s coinciding with the Christmas-New Year holidays can play havoc with business appointments. Most Australian families take their holidays between the week before Christmas and the end of January. If this is the time you’re visiting, it may be hard to find the people you want, so make arrangements well ahead.

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14 years ago

I played golf with a fellow in Virginia who had been to Australia numerous times in relation to gas and energy pipelines. He said his memory was that Australians wore odd socks. He said someone would be well dressed, suit and tie, and then have bright yellow scooby doo socks on.

I thought that was interesting.

The Devil Drink
The Devil Drink
14 years ago

long and liquid lunches are a thing of the past

Regrettably so, but nevertheless a lot of people like to live their history proudly, Nick. In particular, credit should go to that class of ‘businessperson’ whose trade sees them coming frequently into contact with the authorities: whether that be informal talks with senior Public Service officials outside the Governor Mussolini Macquarie Tower, or a serious chat over beers with the local detectives at the Railway Hotel.
To your rules I’d add a very important rider for foreigners: don’t mention God or religion unless your host brought the subject up. Sex and politics are less taboo than they used to be, but bells an’ smells with strangers still make Australians nervous.

whyisitso
whyisitso
14 years ago

“He said his memory was that Australians wore odd socks.”

The guy’s spent too much time with Edmund Capon.

Barry Humphries has made his name and his main act revolve around his Melburnian origins. Moonee Ponds even has an Edna Everage Lane adjacent to Puckle Street.

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14 years ago

whyisitso, The guy’s spent too much time with Edmund Capon.

I had red socks on when he said it. Didn’t exactly put me in a position of strength to claim it was am inaccurate generalisation.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

Trust you noted the breakfast tip, Nicholas. I was prepared to humour your rustic provincial notions the first time, but next time it’s coffee and bruschetta at 7.30am or no deal.