Adventures in international business etiquette


The first thing I saw in the office this morning was a guy in a shirt and tie. I flew into a panic.

I immediately realized I’d forgotten the memo: The boss had reminded us to dress business, not casual, as we were having important visitors from China. They may be capitalists now, see, but they’re still very insular, and they’re not prepared for our free-spirited North American mode of dress.

In fact, I was telling a gullible, tie-wearing co-worker that if they had their way, they’d probably try to build a big wall around the whole country! Predictably, he missed the irony, and I got a history lesson about the Great Wall of China. I feigned confusion, then interest, and finally said, “Building a wall? That sounds more like something the Germans might do!”

Anyway, the memo was Friday, so I forgot all about it all over the weekend. Most people didn’t, though, and were dressed in varying states of businesslike attire. I’d kind of just figured that the order was aimed at making sure the graphic designers weren’t walking around in T-shirts as they often do (in contravention of the usual dress code, but they’re artists! They’re not bound by our ordinary rules).

In fact, the most dressed-up guy was a designer who turned up in a full suit and tie. (I think the framed photo of Chairman Mao on his desk might have been overdoing it, though.) I looked down at my polo shirt and khakis. A vast disparity. And both of us contrasted with the shirt-and-tie combinations and open-collared dress shirts around us.

“We’re not fooling anyone,” I said. “They’re going to know we don’t dress like this every day. We’re just trying to impress them.” I looked at my attire again. “Well, some of us are,” I added. I looked at his suit and tie again. “… sir,” I finished.

I sat down and fretted. I did up a button at my neck. Was a polo shirt business or casual? It was definitely on the casual end of business. It was obviously more acceptable than the Free Tibet T-shirt I’d talked about wearing. What about a shirt, tie, and a blazer with a crest in the shape of independent Taiwan? Technically, that would be within the rules. But enough of that thinking — was I dressy enough? Would the boss flip out? Would the visitors be insulted? I had a sudden image of a headline: China Declares War on Canada over Fashion Gaffe.

I’m probably going to tell my gullible co-worker that when the delegation of vistors saw me, they all started jabbering angrily and one even threw a ninja star at me. But in the end, they just passed by for about five seconds and didn’t pay any attention to me. Later, in the cafeteria, there were a whole bunch of leftover weird Chinese fruits like lychees and rambutans and starfruit that tasted pretty good. So it all worked out in the end.

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