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The one issue about which many visitors to Greece find themselves having difficulty, is the area of business etiquette. This is an area where, as in the western world, there is a lot of subjectivity.
If you ask someone in Greece what they perceive to be the ideal Greek business etiquette, the answer is likely to be influenced by the individual’s own life experiences.
In order for a businessperson to be successful in Greece, he has to learn the local business customs and practices. Let’s look at some areas where this overlap occurs.
Much has been made recently of the Greek reluctance to give “invitations.”
From the western point of view, business invitations are considered to be a commitment, otherwise known as a “contract.” They are not considered a “request for an interest.”
If you make a suggestion to someone and they agree that it is a good one, or give you the impression that they agree, this is confirmation that you now have an “unpaid invoice” to deliver.
What is the contract? What is the invoice? Let’s look at it this way:
A visit to a company in the west would usually be organized by an executive secretary who facilitates the process and obtains the appropriate information to be able to prepare the executive’s calendar.
The meeting is then confirmed in writing. You can’t see the executive, and since the visit is managed by an executive secretary (often on behalf of an assistant), the “invitation” has already been implicitly confirmed.
The eastern businessperson sees this very differently. If it’s not explicitly confirmed, there’s a very good chance that the person will not show up.
It is unfair to assume that people in the east are always lying. They just don’t have the social pressure that exists in the west to do so.
Giving and receiving business cards
For similar reasons, the Greek businessperson does not give a business card to people that he or she doesn’t know. It’s an old custom that was considered to be insulting to do so. However, in the business world, it is considered odd not to give people business cards that you’ve collected from people that you do know. In practice, most Greeks will only give business cards to accomplished professionals.
In the west, it is common for businesspeople to give gifts when they meet company executives for the first time. Gift-giving is very common in eastern cultures. In Greece, it’s quite common to receive gifts when you’re invited to someone’s house. Since the eastern businessman doesn’t have a list of the people he would like to invite, he will often not know what to buy. In the professional world, you can expect small gifts (a pack of cigarettes, chocolates, or flowers) on the very first meeting. Left-handed thank-you cards are much appreciated.
Dining, entertainment and business
It is not unusual for businesspeople to invite their clients and contacts to a dinner or for a drink. It is the responsibility of the host to pay for the entertainment. The host must cover the entertainment and the price of the meal.
If a client is invited to a restaurant for dinner, then the client is expected to make some effort to ensure that the cost is not too high (for example, eating at a moderately priced restaurant).
By the same token, if the potential customer says that he will not be dining in the restaurant, the message sent by the restaurant is that they are not interested in your money, and hence, will not be wasting their time with you.
If a company makes an effort to entertain their client, it is considered a great expense. The longer the dinner goes on, the higher the bill will be. If you are the customer, you will be expected to pay for this! After all, no business will be transacted with an empty stomach!
One thing that can help is to accept your host’s “invitation” to dinner or a drink, and then choose your “open-ended” invitation sufficiently far in advance (especially if your schedule will be subject to change prior to the meeting) so that you can change the time or date if the need arises.
The eastern businessperson is not in business to sell. It is the customer who is in business to buy. Therefore, the customer is expected to make the initial effort to find out what the other person can help them with.
Picking up the ball
Once you make it clear to the Greek businessperson that you have a potential problem that you would like to solve, the onus that you are on him to clarify (or not) what the problem is that his company can solve and better still, find a solution.
Don’t expect that the Greek businessperson will put his own cash and time on the line for you to play with until you are comfortable and happy with the product.
We’re not suggesting that all Greek companies are like this. You will run into a lot of Greek companies that are either very old and/or very large. Clients in these positions have the privilege and responsibility of knowing exactly what clients want BEFORE they even talk to them. If you don’t yet know what you want, then you are truly an unknown quantity. In some business circles, that can be a very dangerous thing.
Greek Business Law
The eastern view of business law is quite different to the western practice. Some of this has to do with the fact that Greek law is not based on an “equality of right” philosophy, but rather on a principle of “right” which grants the government, instead of the individual, ownership of power and authority.
Greek labor laws do not protect the employee or the employer from legal recourse. Rather they place restrictions on an employer’s right to hire and fire. This makes it very difficult for the Greek entrepreneur to make any changes in company practices let alone hire new personnel.
Many western business practices are considered to be illegal, unacceptable or anti-social by Greek authorities. Even the most common business practices, such as offering a “commission rate,” or setting “price ceilings” may be in violation of Greek law.
Of course, there is a market for all things in Greece. The illegal practices may not be the best to use in negotiations, but unless you are specifically told that something is illegal in Greece before signing a contract, then it is up to you, the businessperson to investigate Greek business practices and do your part (along with your attorney) to make sure that the contract is legal.
Business Tips for Greek Living
A well-known un-abbreviated Greek sentence is the first of great importance to the foreigner living in Greece. It is a simple phrase that is the essence of all of your living in Greece: “Ohi Xoria”. The translation is simple but the application is not: “yes sir” in English.
Probably more than any other Greek custom, this phrase will help you to understand what living in Greece means. Every time you come across a Greek speaking businessperson, there will always be a constant exchange. No matter how little you have to say and how little time you have to speak, you always say “Ohi Xoria.” This is a complete sentence. It is always spoken with a smile and a hand gesture toward the person speaking.
When you hear it, don’t assume that it means you a rude interruption. It is simply an expression of the person’s gratitude for your letting him talk.
Ohi Xoria is heard for the next 1000 years into the future. This is as true today as it was one thousand years ago. Greek history is replete with the phrase “Ohi Xoria” from the time of ancient Greece through the times of the Byzantine Empire and on through the Renaissance and fall of the Golden Age. I heard it in my best friend’s house as recently as last month while talking with her father for those few moments in the greeting ritual.
Ohi Xoria is the greeting of Greece. It is the most important Greek custom to learn.
When you hear the above Greek phrase used for the first time, don’t be insulted. It may feel like an insult. However, this is the common greeting that not only Greeks use, but all aegeaceous businesspeople (in the Balkans, as well as Greece, aegeaceous means “of the Aegean Sea” – from the aegeus, the Aegean Sea region) from any country. It is a sincere expression of respect for one’s listener. Even if it is a close friend or relative, they will say Ohi Xoria.
The Greek greeting is more than just a custom, it is a very historic part of diplomacy. It is so important that when a visitor arrives in Greece, he (and especially she) is expected to say this greeting as soon as they meet the first person. The next tip will help you understand why.
Once you hear the word, no matter how you feel about the encounter, smile and say it straight back: “Ohi Xoria.” Be careful, there is no English equivalent to this statement. It is not a greeting; it does not translate into a greeting or even a statement. It is a complete and concise statement that requires action.
Remember the above phrase for years of your meetings with Greeks, not only in Greece, but also in the Balkans. It is so accepted today that many young people may not know its importance in Greek culture.
However, if you make a habit of saying it, you will be amazed at how many Greeks are grateful for your effort.
If you have recently opened a business in Greece or the Balkans and your employees, vendors, and business associates do not say “Ohi Xoria” to you, then you have a problem. This is a sign that they are not comfortable with working for or dealing with you.
If you are the one that is not properly communicating, then your employees, vendors, and associates are also uncomfortable with you.
If you have a person who is old, ill, or badly injured, one of the things that you should do if appropriate is to say “Ohi Xoria. If someone is having a bad day or is sick, then you can be certain that person will say “Ohi Xoria.”
When meeting with a potential vendor, never forget to say “Ohi Xoria.” Often the businessperson will reciprocate, rewarding you for using the proper Greek custom.
Now that you know “the secret phrase,” many Greek businesspeople will thank you for using it. By using it, no matter how difficult it is, you have given your respect for the Greek and his/her culture. This word does not translate into any other language. However, it holds a promise that you are willing to place the actions of the person before you ahead of yours.
Greek Customs and Trade Unions
The Greek government, through the advice of business experts and business customs experts (these are people who study how businesspeople act and advise businesspeople to act) has made it illegal to have a trade union. Despite this, many Greek businesspeople agree that this is a major obstacle in progress for businesspeople. Once the businessperson comes to the conclusion that his/her employees’ rights must be protected, he/she locks the door to real progress. Greeks have traditionally hated unions. In fact the Greek language has named the country’s three major unions, unions of the unemployed, the frustrated and the uneducated.
Greeks have a cultural norm to respect labor. As a cultural norm, they do not want to put more labor into a business than is necessary. In Greece, labor means more than people; it also means the economy. It is a basic concept in Greek culture, as well as business contract negotiations.
Greeks respect labor and do not want to waste it. This is often the downfall for a foreign businessperson, who does not have training in Greek law. If a Greek businessperson considers a union, he/she will have it as an employee, not a business custom.
In Greece the Works Council Act was created by the Social Democratic Government of George Papandreou in April 1994. It also applies to all private sector companies with more than one hundred employees. This law is a requirement by the EU but essentially organized labor is illegal in Greece. To avoid a conflict, the Greek government does not recognize a union as an organization, but rather as an outlet for labor.
The main purpose of the Works Council Act is not just to give labor a voice in the workplace, but to be a group governed by labor and to act with the cooperation of labor, as well as the employer. It is not an organization that represents the employer; it is not there to prevent a union. This main purpose is the responsibility of the Labor Inspectorate, which conducts the elections. Elections are to be conducted by the labor system either every five years or upon the request of either the employer or the employee.
This law requires the posting of the law in each workplace where the election will take place. It requires local labor officers to conduct educational workshops on election procedures and on the rights of the employer and employees. The election is supervised by an official representative from the Labor Inspectorate, and it is held by secret ballot.