During a sales meeting in Scandinavia several years ago, Michele Crocker’s group decided to finish their afternoon discussion in the sauna – in the nude, in accordance with regional custom.
Now Ms. Crocker, a 45-year-old nutritional-supplement executive, has some advice for fellow business travelers: Pack a bathing suit for trips to northern Europe, in case you wind up in a sauna. ”People talk business in there together,” says Ms. Crocker, who fortunately had a swimsuit to don. She recalls the incident as part of her formative world-travel education. ”I just didn’t know where to look,” she says.
Today’s globe-trotting business travel can require extraordinary sartorial footwork. Far from diminishing travel, technology has expanded it – and the opportunities for awkwardness. Eye contact and the warmth of a handshake are vital components of successful trading relationships. But that friendly smile will do you no good if your wardrobe makes you look like a rube – or, worse, insults your host.
”As an executive, you have to be humble to the culture,” says Ms. Crocker, who now travels to places like Namibia, Turkey, Peru and Argentina for her job.
And there’s no end to potential faux pas around the world. Among the considerations to be mindful of is that many Hindus in India may be offended by your finely tooled leather belt and briefcase. Some shades of yellow are reserved for the royal families to wear in Malaysia, and white is the color of mourning in parts of Asia.
For the most part, a dark, well-made business suit and conservative accessories like ties, belts and simple jewelry will get you safely through business in major cities around the world. So it’s easy to get complacent, what with global retail groups making fashion seem similar the world over and chain hotels sanitizing travel with consistent service from Manhattan to Kuala Lumpur.
Times have changed since, say, my mother, who traveled extensively around the world between 1955 and 1995, taught me to wash clothes in a hotel-room sink and twist them in a towel until nearly dry, and to carry traveler’s checks in a hidden belt.
But there are still nooks of the globe that don’t offer a Marriott hotel room with laundry service and an iron in every closet. Just ask Paul Langner, the marine terminal manager for Teevin Brothers Land & Timber Co. in Rainier, Ore., where he figures the logistics of moving timber around the globe. On a recent trip to inspect a hardwood plantation, he flew to Costa Rica, drove four ?189 hours over washed-out roads to the Panamanian border, and slept in a thatched-roof hut. A band of howler monkeys provided his morning wake-up call before dawn, somewhat earlier than called for.
Mr. Langner, who is 51, transitions from suit-wearing executive to Paul Bunyan in the midst of these far-flung trips. He rolls his business suits in tissue paper and leaves them in an airport locker to be retrieved for executive meetings, which tend to take place in the cities that he flies to. When he heads to a logging camp, he dons a pair of rugged khakis from Duluth Trading Co. Otherwise, ”They’d look at you like, ‘Are you one of them sissy boys?”’ he says. ”There’s dress for success, and there’s dress for camaraderie.”
And then there’s laundry. After washing his khakis in a sink, Mr. Langner has in the past fashioned two drying racks from bent coat hangers and shoved one up each pant leg to stretch them taut and wrinkle-free. (Another tip comes from a photographer I know who travels with a ball of string – handy as clothes line, for broken suitcases, and all manner of emergencies.)
But you don’t have to travel that far afield to face fashion pitfalls. Carol Kasper, former medical director of the World Federation of Hemophilia and a hematologist with the University of Southern California, has spent years jetting around the world to meet with health ministers and address medical conferences. Along the way, she’s developed a set of sartorial rules for professional women that covers much of the world. They include avoiding flowered prints in Germany, where they suggest frumpiness, and choosing skirts in Japan. In China, pants for women are preferable. ”Can you get away with plaid? Well, in the U.K. you can,” she says.
”I need to look respectable, professional, reliable,” says Dr. Kasper, who is 71. ”It’s a matter of saying, ‘Do I fit into this world?’ And it’s a matter of one’s comfort.”
Yet even with decades of travel under her belt, Dr. Kasper has stumbled. Attending a Tehran conference, she wore a black raincoat over black trousers and tied a scarf on her head in an attempt to respect local expectations for women. The tight scarf made her scalp sweat and itch. And the coat felt clumsy. ”Two of the men were dressed to the nines in their wonderfully fitting Western suits, and I felt so bedraggled,” Dr. Kasper recalls.
A better choice might have been flowing pants under a long-sleeved, loose-fitting dress. Also worth noting, for any Western woman traveling in the Middle East, is that women there often use bobby pins to loosely attach big square scarves to their hair. For women traveling to less liberal Arab countries, it’s often a good idea to check with the U.S. or Canadian embassy for guidance on local custom and expectations, according to a book called ”Do’s and Taboos around the World for Women in Business.”
Switzerland is one country where your garments are likely to garner notice for the excellence of their wools, careful seams and handsome linings. And Russians are more likely to buy a whole look from a designer than people in other parts of the world: While that may not be necessary for travelers, it’s a sign of how important it is to put your best foot forward.
Dr. Kasper also advises taking fast action if you believe you’ve made a mistake, such as last year, when she entered a conference room in a Cairo hotel wearing a long-sleeved business suit with a skirt that covered her knees. ”I found that I was showing more flesh than any other woman in the room,” she says. ”I hurried back to my room and changed into a pantsuit.”