Jan 2, 2013
When doing business abroad it is a general rule to respect the culture of the country you are in. But what do you do if you think that culture might kill you with their habits?
That’s a problem a friend of mine faced recently. She’s an American biochemist and went to Shanghai with her boss to discuss a technology transfer agreement with a prospective Chinese partner.
Their business week started and ended with traditional Chinese banquets. She knew before she left that the feast was an important step in building the business relationship. And she was looking forward to eating authentic Chinese dishes and even prepared a few toasts for the drinking she knew to be prevalent.
What she hadn’t expected was the chain smoking during dinner.
As a junior employee, she felt uncomfortable asking her hosts to stop smoking, which she said took place continuously throughout the meal by five of their Chinese counterparts. Instead, she suffered through it.
She felt so strongly about the experience that, upon returning home, she obtained a doctor’s note to submit to her boss stating she should not be exposed to second-hand smoke.
In her home state of North Dakota, she says it’s customary for smokers to ask permission to smoke when in the company of non-smokers. That scenario is now moot because 67 percent of North Dakota voters recently approved a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, joining more than 30 other states with similar restrictions.
(Maryland passed a law banning smoking in all public transportation vehicles, enclosed public places and enclosed workplaces, including bars, restaurants, casinos, and private clubs. Maryland smokers are likely to be further restricted; earlier this year the state began discussing smoking restrictions in private cars.)
While smoking is becoming less acceptable in the U.S., it is still cool in many places around the globe. Several French scientists I’ve worked with chided me on how Americans are health-obsessed smoke-haters. I’ve risked perpetuating the “ugly American” reputation many times when I’ve asked friends abroad to avoid smoking around me.
But I’m still stumped on the best way to respond when I’m with a client and they pull out a cigarette. Should I just accept it as a cost of doing business? Should I carry a letter from my doctor explaining why I can’t be exposed to second-hand smoke? Should I avoid travel to countries where smoking is acceptable? What other options are there?