Wednesday 18 October 2017

We drink too much, we swear too often and we can't take criticism

Global etiquette websites portray Irish executives as David Brent, yet we are genuinely liked, writes Mark Keenan

THE Irish business executive likes a drink, turns up late, disrespects authority and takes criticism badly. He insults his colleagues as a sign of affection and when you're dealing with him you should always keep him at arm's length.

This somewhat uncomplimentary composite picture is painted by international business etiquette websites such as kwintessential.co.uk, executiveplanet.com and ediplomat.com. They list off the downsides (as well as the upsides) of doing business in all countries, including Ireland.

These are the sort of information sites which are commonly the first port of call for intercultural research by executives who plan doing business abroad. There are good reasons for looking at these sites; their criticisms are aimed at all nationalities but it is worth looking at our own if we plan to improve how we deal with foreigners for business.

So are our executives exuding the traits of the disfunctional David Brent from British TV show 'The Office'? Business etiquette trainer Pamela Fay of BPM Consulting says the content of these sites shows how easy it is for the Irish to forget that some of the more peculiar quirks in our national character may sometimes offend foreigners.

"We are genuinely liked and admired in international business circles but there are some things that we Irish just get wrong all the time. Punctuality is probably our single biggest problem -- we don't respect it at all and this is something that really frustrates those from other business cultures who see being late as a sign of disrespect."

Ediplomat, a site often used by those on trade or diplomatic delegations, has this to say about Irish tardiness: "The Irish are not very time-conscious and may not be punctual for business and social meetings. They have a relaxed sense of time and may be a little late for meetings. However, a foreigner should be on time for business meetings."

Executive planet warns employers: "It's not enough to insist that your Irish employees arrive on time; you will have to give convincing evidence that their tardiness is harming the organisation."

Solusource website goes one further: "Punctuality is considered peculiar . . ."

Another flaw in the character of Irish business is our failure to be direct. Ms Fay says: "Our avoidance of conflict and our inability to say no is something which Americans in particular have a problem with because business there is conducted in a more direct talking culture where no offence is taken."

This trait is highlighted for business travellers by Kwintessential: "There is a tendency to use understatement or indirect communication rather than say something that might be contentious. Meanwhile executiveplanet.com says: "In the intitial stages of making plans the Irish will sometimes exhibit ambitious and far-reaching vision combined with a willingness to take tremendous risks. Later on, however, you might observe some reluctance to take action followed by a defeatist assumption that the plan will collapse."

Next on the Irish executive's list of big international etiquette mistakes is his or her issues with authority and an inability to take criticism.

Ediplomat warns: "Outwardly the Irish accept authority but inwardly have strong displeasure in accepting it." Further on, the same website states: "Remember the Irish want to do things their way. You will not succeed if you insist on doing it 'your way'".

Tenfootsquare warns: "It is quite ordinary for Irish people to criticise themselves but they are not generally receptive to criticisms from other people so beware." The site eHow.com agrees: "Your Irish client may freely criticise himself, but won't take criticism from others well."

Executiveplanet.com says: "The Irish are usually distrustful of authority and of people who think that they are somehow 'better' than others. Remain modest at all times." Ediplomat concludes: "Irish people tend to be creative and calm in a crisis but they prefer to improvise rather than follow a rigid plan."

The evidence contained on these websites also suggests a clannishness in business networking which foreigners sometimes find intimidating.

"The Irish buy from the Irish primarily, and secondarily from within their circle of network contacts. As a foreigner it is very hard to break into these networks," says executiveplanet.com.

"Promotion is often given to family members first above other employees, regardless of skills and experience." Further on, the same site adds: "Introductions from people within the network are gold dust.

Executiveplanet.com adds: "Introductions are not given lightly; they're the currency that makes Irish business go around."

There are also lists of notes to help foreign business visitors with the peculiarities of Irish body language and physical etiquette. Tenfootsquare says: "When speaking to an Irish person, keep an arm's length distance from the person. This is a sign of respect. Maintaining personal space is important in Irish culture. The Irish perceive people who avoid eye contact as untrustworthy."

Ediplomat adds: "The Irish are not very physically demonstrative and are not comfortable with public displays of affection." Tenfootsquare also warns somewhat bizarrely: "Touching, hugging and patting other men in public are socially unacceptable except during rugby games."

There's advice on corporate entertainment and the dreaded drink: "Refusing a drink can be perceived as insult in Ireland," warns ediplomat. For its part, executiveplanet.com has rather a lot to say on this subject: "Drinking forms a huge part of the Irish culture and psyche and the country has a high rate of alcoholism and, linked to alcoholism, depression. Going for a pint [of Guinness] is part of the daily routine for many, just like other nations go jogging!"

There's even suggested etiquette for pinting. The same site advises: "When ordering Guinness, a man should ask for a pint of Guinness. It's considered 'unmanly' to have anything less. Ladies can ask for a 'glass' of Guinness [a half pint]. Bear in mind that each person is expected to pay for a round of drinks. Neglecting your turn to pay for a round will only create a bad impression."

Of course there are places other than the pub in which to entertain. Ediplomat says: The golf course is a major venue for conducting business in Ireland." Then there are restaurants. The same site observes: "Table manners are the same as in England, only a bit more relaxed. The small plate next to a dinner plate is for peelings removed from boiled potatoes." And then a warning: "It is acceptable, but may be misconstrued for a foreign woman to invite an Irishman to dinner. It is best to stick with lunch."

According to Pamela Fay, the other really big and glaring problem with Irish business culture is bad language. "Compared with other business cultures, we use it far too frequently and casually and it's something that really shocks them." Some cultures also can't get used to the gentle abuse we Irish call "slagging."

Kwintessential advises visitors to have thick skins: "It is common for the Irish to trade insults and tease one another (called "slagging") with people to whom they are close. If you are teased, it is important to take it well and not see it as personal."

Executive planet says: "Cynicism is an important part of the national character. A great deal of cynicism is directed at people who seem too wealthy or powerful. In this culture, there is greater respect for the 'underdog.' Elsewhere the site states: "Racism is pretty rife still in business and socially, even if it's not spoken about."

On a brighter note, most international business etiquette websites praise us for our eloquence and ability to entertain. According to Pamela Fay, it's one of the reasons that, despite all of the above, the Irish are genuinely liked in international business circles.

Kwintessential says: "The Irish have turned speaking into an art form. Their tendency to be lyrical and poetic has resulted in a verbal eloquence. They use stories and anecdotes to relay information and value a well-crafted message. How you speak says a lot about you in Ireland."

There are also some helpful tips to help guard against the inevitable culture clashes.

"'How are you?' is a popular casual greeting, particularly between individuals who have already established a cordial acquaintance. An answer as to the state of your health is not necessary, just 'hello' will do," advises executive planet.

The Vayama site warns: "Un-derstand that asking for a 'drop' of something (ie whiskey) means that you're actually asking for a glass of it, not simply a drop!"

Ms Fay warns, however, that some of these websites should also come with a user warning. "A business etiquette website is a good port of call, but I'd always advise people to sit down with someone from the culture in question to learn about differences directly, not least because the international etiquette websites often get it wrong."

Solusource, for example, says our lack of punctuality is because: "Ireland does not have a public transport system." The same website advises business travellers to expect cold water only in hotel and household bathrooms. "It is preferable for men and women to bring clothing made of wool and tweed in subdued colours," advises the doctoc website.

Finally, kwintessential has a rather peculiar explanation for Irish indirectness in business negotiations: "If someone becomes silent before agreeing, they have probably said "no". This may be due to the fact that the Gaelic language does not have words for "yes" or "no".

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