How to Plan for an International Audience

By Sharifah Masten, November 25, 2013

International meetings require more than great planning and organizational skills to attract a global audience. With attendees traveling from countries throughout the world, event professionals must be prepared to tailor each guest’s experience to make them feel respected and welcome. While you should do your own research on specific cultures you expect at your event, the following examples serve as a guide to help promote culture blend rather than culture crash.

Dietary Needs
Food is the universal unifier: Everyone eats. But menu planning for a diverse group can be one of the biggest challenges a planner of an international meeting faces. Consider including foods suitable for a wide array of restrictions and preferences, including cultural and religious differences as well as allergy and medical restrictions. Carefully curated food choices help attendees feel they’re a part of the group and promote an inclusive meal environment. Below are some food restrictions broken down by religion:

Buddhism: Mainly vegetarians; no alcohol

Catholic: No meat during certain days of Lent and, for some, all Fridays

Hindu: No meat, especially beef

Islam: No alcohol, pork products or non-Halal meats

Judaism: No pork products or shellfish; no meat and dairy during same meal.

Mormon: No coffee, tea, alcohol or large amounts of meat

Gift Giving
Before giving gifts or hosting giveaways at your event, make sure what’s being given is appropriate for everyone. Avoid bottles of wine as gifts, as many religions—including Buddhism, Islam and Mormon—prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Other examples of gifting taboos include a clock to people of Chinese culture, as the Chinese word for clock sounds like the word for death; or a letter opener to people of Latin America, which resembles a knife and in their culture symbolizes the severing of a relationship. Even though flowers are commonly given to express love in America, the color and number can send the wrong message in other cultures. For example, white signals mourning in Japan, and in Germany, red roses have a romantic connotation to be avoided in professional settings. There are many differences in gift etiquette for each country. When in doubt, seek out experienced salespeople or an etiquette consultant.

Body Language
Aside from verbal communication, which encompasses tone as well as content, nonverbal communication—such as body language, gestures and expressions—accounts for more than half the impact in the way messages are received. The most commonly used and expected gesture in business settings is the handshake. In Western culture, it can be used to project friendliness and confidence, and is appropriate to use as both a welcoming and goodbye gesture. But a handshake is considered inappropriate in some parts of the world. In Islamic culture and some Jewish communities, touching between a man and a woman is not permitted. A few other examples that don’t translate cultural divides include the thumbs-up sign, which means OK in the United States, but is considered offensive by Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures; eyebrow raising, which commonly indicates surprise or interest in America, but expresses skepticism in Britain and signals disagreement in China; or the OK sign, which may seem like a universal gesture to signal that everything is good, but means “Let’s talk about money” in Japan, is a symbol for something worthless in France, and is even an obscene gesture in Spain, Brazil and Russia.

This guest post is by Sharifah Masten, an international business etiquette and protocol expert and event professional. She is CEO and founder of Protocol & Meetings by Design, based in Philadelphia. Contact her at


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