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Let it ring?

Imagine that you’ve just arrived to a foreign country to conduct some business. Your feet are swollen from the flight, your brain is foggy from the jet lag and your stomach is unsettled from the unusual food. It’s nearly the end of the workday and the pleasantries are over — you’re finally in a serious business meeting. You’re talking about the issues you came to square away face- to- face when your colleague’s cell phone begins to ring. They answer it. What do you do?

A)  Feel a little disrespected but justified in checking your own cell phone, too.

B)  Take the opportunity to have a side discussion with another meeting participant to gauge their view on the topics being discussed.

C)  Express acute displeasure with words or an expression.

In the U.S., I’d choose A.

In India, I’d choose B.

In France, I’d definitely speak up and choose C.

In many countries, it’s not considered rude to answer a cell phone in a business meeting (though  I think it’s rude everywhere to carry on a personal or non-urgent conversation during a workplace meeting).

In fact, in many Asian countries, it’s desirable to have excuses for small breaks. Indians don’t tend to express their views as openly as in the U.S. Dissenting thoughts or serious concerns are gauged during breaks one-on-one. Mini-breaks are welcome during important business meetings in India just for this purpose.

In France however,  taking the call during a meeting is offensive. In fact the phone probably shouldn’t even be visible. There might be some leniency if the French counterparts are used to dealing with foreigners. But they will be offended when foreigners text while talking to them. Texting and talking is not considered multitasking — it’s considered blatant rudeness.

There could be lots of reasons for the differences in etiquette. Indians often say that when cell phones were introduced to the Indian market, they were almost immediately embraced as a business tool, where in Europe and the U.S. they were first introduced as personal phones. Such that when cell phones rang during meetings, they had the stigma of being personal calls interrupting business events.

Cell phones are now widely regarded as business tools, but in France, texting still isn’t widely accepted as a form of business communication.

Of course, it could also be an infrastructure issue. In some African countries, answering a cell phone while in a business meeting isn’t considered rude either. There, voice mail isn’t prevalent and wireless connectivity can be erratic, so many African business people take the call when the phone rings — even if they are in a meeting. Silent mode isn’t so popular either — the phone rings loud and proud.

In Asian and African countries where voice mail is not widely used, it seems to me that business people treat a ringing cell phone akin to an administrative assistant entering a meeting to slip them a note letting them know a caller is waiting on their office line. Except instead of reading the note, they take the call and determine its significance. If insignificant, it’s quickly disposed of, and the meeting resumes as if there was no interruption.

When doing business abroad, learning the host country’s customs and etiquette is a sign of respect. Respect is necessary for a successful long-term association. If you’re planning on using your cell phone for business travel – learn the local custom, don’t assume your phone habits are the norm everywhere!