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How to fist bump in Japanese
Local business leaders get schooled in international protocol
Protocol expert Chris Young counsels on cross-cultural communication and etiquette for businesses.

DO YOU KNOW the correct way to present a business card to someone from Japan? Or the preferred form of correspondence in Dubai? How about whether it's appropriate to take a selfie at a German business dinner?

If you’re shrugging in your pinstriped suit, perhaps you need advice from international protocol expert Chris Young.

A seasoned globetrotter and the former Director of International Affairs for the State of Georgia under Governor Nathan Deal, Young serves as Executive Director of CIFAL-Atlanta, a division of the United Nations’ international training center for government authorities and civil society leaders.

The organization is also kind of a charm school for CEOs. But becoming fluent in today’s global business culture is more than using the correct fork at a dinner party.

“We tend to think very ethnocentrically in the U.S.,” the affable Young told an audience at World Trade Center Savannah last week. “What we’re doing here is creating a bridge so that diplomacy and business can proceed and succeed.”

About 25 representatives from a variety of Savannah-based businesses gathered around WTC’s polished oval conference table last week to listen to Young counsel on the cross-cultural nuances of doing business outside American borders. Highlights included appropriate gift-giving, how to artfully dodge an awkward handshake and that a Japanese potential investor may not be sleeping during your presentation, he’s just listening carefully with his eyes closed.

Young also covered the “nitty gritty do’s and don’ts” of a basic business meeting with someone from a different country, like dressing appropriately for the occasion (DO!) and making a big, loud American entrance (DON’T.)

In the section “How to Lose a Deal in a Minute...or 30 Seconds if You Try Really Hard,” Young covered how even a small blunder like keeping your hand in your pocket when you greet someone for the first time can become a public relations disaster, as Bill Gates found out on a recent trip to Korea.

“If your faux pas becomes the story, you’ve failed,” admonished Young.

The workshop was part of WTC Savannah’s global education program, one of the ways the economic development agency works towards its mission of helping local and regional businesses attract investments and create jobs. (WTC shares offices with SEDA, the Savannah Economic Development Authority, though the two organizations have separate boards.) Future events include a lecture on import compliance and documentation procedures and a panel of regional experts to introduce International Business 101.

“More and more Savannah businesses are hosting delegates and working with clients from other countries,” said Brynn Grant, WTC’s vice president. “The programs cover a broad range of topics designed to address many aspects of doing business in a global marketplace.”

There was indeed a wide breadth of commercial players at the table: Real estate developers took notes alongside managerial employees from the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. Marketing executives from South University and Georgia Southern listed attentively. Some attendees had import-export businesses directly related to the port, others were simply curious about international business affairs.

Young’s guidance comes at an excellent juncture for local jazz musician Jody Espina, who also owns a company that manufactures saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces. The JodyJazz factory, located in a westside industrial park, has 10 employees and just secured a loan for new equipment to keep up with demand.

“We’ve been around for 15 years, and about 67 percent of our business is now international,” said Espina. “We’re exporting to Germany, China and Brazil.”

While JodyJazz VP Colin Schofield now handles most of the correspondence for the growing company, Espina understands the importance of staying educated in current business protocol.

“I might just be the dizzy blond with the saxophone but I still have to have these interactions,” he grinned during one of the short breaks in Young’s three and half hour presentation. “This kind of information is really valuable. There’s always something more to learn.”

Young went over proper Japanese business card etiquette (make sure to take it with both hands and obsess over it like a piece of art) and what Americans can leave off the next round of cards at the printer (“You don’t need a fax number. Faxes are dying a slow death.”) He underscored several times how social media has changed the game for business, stressing that the lines between the personal and the public have been dissolved, so mind your online manners always.

Crucial to success is acknowledging the many cultural disparities and learning to ask the right questions (preferably beforehand.)

“People need to get over the sense of political correctness that’s been jammed down our throats,” he said. “There’s a way to recognize people’s dignity without glossing over our differences.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway was not about international travel but how to most effectively host clients and potential investors right here in Savannah. Young advised researching personal preferences and putting thought into gifts and small details.

As companies seek out places to set up shop and are inundated with various economic presentations and tax incentives, sometimes what clinches the deal is genuine hospitality.

“Be authentic, be attentive,” said Young.

“It all comes down to how people feel when they’re in your city.”