Do’s & Don’ts of Emphasizing Multi-Cultural Diversity at your Meetings and Events

American Meetings, Inc. frequently plans meetings and events in International destinations or in the US with International guests.   This brings unique challenges.  The following posting was found on the SMERF Meetings Journal website and provides useful tips for avoiding a cultural faux pas when planning international meetings and events.


As the marketplace turns increasingly global and multicultural, many books and articles offer guidelines to help U.S. citizens conduct business successfully in other countries. But what about the reverse situation? There is also an increased flow of international businesspeople to the United States – including international delegates at meetings, international qualifiers in incentive programs, and international exhibitors and attendees at trade shows. When Americans are the hosts, they should do everything possible to make overseas visitors feel welcome and comfortable and, most importantly, help them use their time productively.

But there is also another reason – a cultural one, naturally. The United States is perhaps the most easygoing, flexible society in the world. But people for whom tradition and ritual are deeply ingrained could find it wrenching to switch to the American style. It’s no big deal for Americans to learn to call international visitors by their surnames until first-name-basis permission is granted. But people from other countries could be seriously offended if called by their first names by people they’ve just met.

It all comes down to being a gracious host so that your visitors – your attendees – can focus on the business at hand and achieve their objectives.

The following recommendations are intended as guidelines for hosting a group with participants from several countries. For an in-depth look at an individual country, consult one of the many protocol books that offer country-specific information.

Key points: The meeting planner is not the only one who must know what’s appropriate. Train everyone who will be in contact with your international attendees, from hotel bellmen to your board members. These people contribute to foreign visitors’ overall experience. And, never make culture-related decisions on your own; instead, form a planning committee. The more input you have from people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, the less likely you are to offend your visitors.

Culture and Protocol

You don’t want your attendees to be embarrassed, confused, or uncomfortable. Yet customary American practice, even that which can be considered good manners, often can have negative results. These are the areas most likely to cause problems:

First names. One of the most frequently cited differences between American society and others is Americans’ casual use of first names. Foreign visitors know that Americans freely use first names, but they don’t understand it and often don’t like it. To avoid an immediate culture clash, stick to surnames.

Surnames. Easier said than done: The surname isn’t always obvious. In Asian countries, the surname usually precedes the given name. In Latin countries, the surname is often what looks to Americans like the middle name. To get it right on hotel and conference registration lists, on name badges, and in conversation, ask registrants to print their surname in block capitals. That way, you’ll be able to identify it, wherever it appears. Also, be sure that the registration form allows plenty of space for long names, as well as long phone and fax numbers.

Business cards. Americans scribble notes on business cards that are handed to them and shove the cards into pockets and wallets with nary a glance. They also thrust business cards at other people every which way. Such behavior horrifies foreign visitors who consider their business card an extension of themselves. Many countries have complex business card protocols; learning them all is a challenge. To be safe, do it in Japanese fashion. That is, hold the card carefully by the top edge as you present it, so the recipient can read it without turning it around. Accept the other person’s card just as carefully, read it thoroughly, and remember what it says. Asking a question that is answered by the information on the card could be considered rude.

Table manners. Your mother told you to keep your hands in your lap when you’re not eating. Unfortunately, those good manners can get you into trouble. In some countries, hands in the lap once suggested you were hiding a weapon, and that posture remains unacceptable today. In other countries, people wonder who’s doing what to whom under the tablecloth. At a business function, your mother’s not watching, but your international colleagues are. Keep your hands on the table and put their minds at ease.

Gestures. The wisest course is to avoid all hand gestures; they have different meanings in different countries. In Gestures: The DO’s and TABOOs of Body Language Around the World (see Books), author Roger Axtell explains, for example, why you shouldn’t use the seemingly harmless “V” for Victory, the “OK” sign touching thumb and forefinger, or a “thumbs up” to show approval. There is country-specific information in Axtell’s book and also in Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries, by Terri Morrison, Wayne A. Conaway, and George A. Borden (see Books).

Humor. This is another area fraught with peril. Few jokes cross borders successfully. A listener who doesn’t get the joke is uncomfortable. If you see that he or she doesn’t get it, and try to explain, you’ll just make things worse.


The major culinary issue is religious restrictions. Muslims don’t eat pork or drink alcoholic beverages; observant Jews don’t eat pork or shellfish, or have meat and dairy products in the same meal; many people from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are vegetarian. To find out what your attendees won’t, or can’t, eat because of religious prohibitions, query them on the registration form or in a preliminary mailing. But don’t simply ask if they have any dietary restrictions; they might not consider their diets “restricted.” Instead, provide a specific checklist. And if you have attendees who don’t drink alcohol, instruct the chef not to prepare sauces with alcohol.

Tradition also matters. At a meeting in New York City, a planner might serve a typical New York breakfast: bagels and lox (smoked salmon). But if attendees from the United Kingdom are present, they could be horrified by such a breakfast. They eat smoked salmon at dinner but consider it inappropriate for breakfast or lunch.

How can you design a menu to satisfy a multicultural group? By offering variety–a buffet works well–and including items that attendees will find familiar. For example, you might include olives in the breakfast buffet when there are attendees from the Middle East.

At a sit-down meal, you could offer various types of entrees: beef, poultry, and fish. And if you’re serving attendees who speak different languages, try to develop an easy way to help people communicate their choice to the server. For instance, you might give each attendee a fish-shaped cutout to hand to the server to indicate their preference. Those who opt for a beef entree would not hand over the cutout.

Many books offer religious and cultural menu guidelines. You may also consider consulting with a chef who has worked at the White House or has other experience with international guests. The convention services or food and beverage department of major hotels with international clientele can offer menu advice–check with hotels in Washington, DC, and New York, two cities with large diplomacy communities.

 Translation and Interpretation

“Translation” refers to written communication; “interpretation” to spoken language. Interpretation can be either consecutive or simultaneous. In consecutive interpretation, the speaker pauses after every sentence or two and waits for the interpreter to repeat in another language. In simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter is in a soundproof booth, with a direct feed from the speaker, and repeats in another language at the same time that the speaker is speaking. Audience members listen through headphones. Because of the intense concentration required, simultaneous interpretation is exhausting. Thus, simultaneous interpreters work in pairs, and switch back and forth every 20 to 30 minutes. That means you need two interpreters for each foreign language.

As the above definitions show, a planner who asks if a meeting room is equipped for “simultaneous translation” is using the wrong term, but it doesn’t matter: Facility management understands the question. The distinction does matter, however, when you’re seeking a supplier, because you must know how to ask for what you want, and you need to do apples-to-apples comparisons when evaluating rates.

Accurate translation and interpretation are crucial to the success of a program. If your promotional materials and Web site are correctly translated, and potential attendees clearly understand your focus and your offerings, the response will be greater. If at a conference, handouts are accurately translated, and speakers’ presentations properly interpreted, attendees will learn more. On the trade show floor, if competent interpreters are available, international exhibitors and attendees will make more contacts.

Translation and interpretation are important in other areas as well. For instance, if you prepare a program booklet for every meeting or incentive travel program you organize, that booklet should be translated into the native language of all the international attendees. And, when housekeeping announcements are given at the end of a function, interpreters should repeat the announcements in order to be fair to international attendees.

To locate translators or interpreters for your meeting, check with the local convention and visitors bureau, or look in the Yellow Pages under “Translation and Interpreting.” Search the Internet under the same heading; most major companies will be listed.

The costs of translation and interpretation depend on a number of factors. The cost of translation is sometimes based on word count. For large projects, however, there might be a page rate or a bulk rate. There are additional costs for typesetting. The cost of interpretation begins with the daily per-person rate (remember: simultaneous interpreters work in pairs). Many interpreters are based in New York City or Washington, DC, where there is the greatest demand for their services, so hiring New York- or Washington-based interpreters for a job in another city would mean an additional cost for their transportation and hotel accommodations.

Important reminder: A person who is bilingual is not automatically qualified to be an interpeter or a translator. It’s important to use professionals who are native speakers of the target language because there are often cultural nuances that can be missed by a non-professional. The best interpreters or translators usually have the cultural background to go with the language skills.


Choose speakers with extra care when planning a multicultural program. Speakers who Americans might consider entertaining or motivating could appear lightweight or rude to foreigners.

As with any meeting, give the speaker a profile of the audience so he or she can tailor the content. But when the audience is multicultural–and especially if you are using interpreters–it’s important to give the speaker these additional guidelines:

Avoid acronyms, jargon, buzzwords, slang, and current clichés. Many do not translate well, and in fact, would make no sense in English to a foreigner who speaks English as a second language. After all, what would a foreigner make of “You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk”?

Speak clearly, and at a moderate pace.

Breathe between sentences. Many languages require more words than English does to express the same idea, and the interpreter needs time to catch up.

Pause briefly before changing an on-screen image from which you are reading–again, to give the interpreter time to catch up.

Consult with the interpreter beforehand to explain any industry-specific terms that may be used. Also, explain any proper nouns that should not be interpreted–so that, for example, Delta Air Lines is not turned into “Mouth of the River” Air Lines.

Do not say anything that the organization holding the meeting would not want to have interpreted.

Special Events and Tours

This should be the fun part of the program. To ensure that it is, take language and culture into consideration just as you would when organizing the business portion.

Avoid language-dependent activities if you cannot provide interpretation. Concerts and dance performances are thus preferable to the theater. However, theatrical performances such as those performed in pantomime can be appropriate for groups with language barriers.

Try to include activities that are typical of the United States. People from other countries have learned about U.S. culture from watching American movies and television programs, many of which are exported. So they’re usually eager to experience activities that they consider unique to this country. Examples include a rodeo, fall foliage tour, barbecue, or boat tour on a major river or lake.

Use highly qualified tour guides. The guide must not only be knowledgeable but speak excellent English.

Think carefully about sporting events. Visitors might want to attend one–but will you have someone available to explain the rules? In DOs and TABOOs of Hosting International Visitors, Axtell provides a country-by-country list of major sports; this can help you make appropriate choices.

Be culturally aware and sensitive. For instance, a guided tour of a World War II vessel might make Japanese citizens feel uncomfortable. Know your history and also be up-to-date on current events.

Provide clothing and schedule guidelines. If Americans aren’t always certain what is meant by “business casual” or “smart casual,” imagine the confusion felt by foreign visitors. In the program booklet, say specifically what clothing is appropriate. Also, explain the schedule–what time cocktails will be served, what time the meal will be served. These times are likely to be different from what your foreign visitors are used to.

Tip: Don’t force the interaction at social events. International attendees may prefer the company of their countrymen. In fact, you might make it easier for them by placing the appropriate national flag near each tour bus, so people can group themselves by country. An added benefit: When people visit another country, it’s always nice to see their own national flag.

Happy Diverse Planning!!!!

For more information, or help with a meeting or event, contact or call American Meetings, Inc. @ 866-337-7799

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