Doing business isn’t just about knowing your numbers and being able to sell your product, it’s also about building relationships and creating trust with the people you work with. But building a mutual partnership can be especially tricky when you are dealing with people from different cultures.

In order to navigate in today’s business world, you need to be able to do business with people from all around the world. Understanding international business etiquette, or the unwritten rules of behavior, has become increasingly important in this ever-closer business atmosphere.

The following guide will help you understand what etiquette is and how important it is for people working in the business world. You’ll learn to understand the key themes that differ between countries and get specific tips when travelling in some of the countries of the world. The aim is to help you be better prepared for international business meetings.

A Practical Guide to International Business Etiquette

© Shutterstock.com | Andrey Bashlykov

In this article, you will explore and learn about 1) what is etiquette and why is it important, 2) the key things to keep in mind when doing business abroad, 3) regional business etiquette tips, 4) how to prepare for doing business abroad, and 5) final thoughts.

WHAT IS ETIQUETTE AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

Etiquette is an important part of social interactions and there are different etiquette rules for different situations.

This guide looks into business etiquette, which refers to an unwritten code of conduct for business situations. It involves special rules that you should follow when you are conducting business, whether at a formal business meeting or a more informal meeting for networking and the like. It is about navigating through the world of business in countries that operate differently when it comes to talking about deals, shaking hands and exchanging business cards.

What is etiquette?

In this time of technology, you’ll end up conducting some of your business online instead of face-to-face. Netiquette is the unique term to cover the set of unwritten rules you should follow when doing business over virtual mediums.

This could be a guideline on how to write a good e-mail to your business partners or how to conduct business relations on social media.

Why is etiquette so important?

Both etiquette and netiquette are crucial for professional success. The ability to behave and conduct business in a respectful and efficient manner can naturally improve your ability to land important business deals or to even find a new company to work for, if you are looking for a different direction for your professional career.

Good business etiquette helps leave a good impression. This shows the other person you have respect toward them and you value the professional situation.

Good business etiquette becomes even more important if you are dealing with people from different cultures and countries. Each country has its own unique business etiquette and by knowing the country-specifics, you can show deep respect toward your business partners.

If you don’t show understanding of specific business etiquette and you disregard these hidden rules, you could stand to lose your important business connections. Even if you aren’t intentionally rude, it can easily be perceived this way and this could hinder your business relations.

Understanding international business etiquette is not difficult and it can be extremely fun to learn new things about the countries of the world.

The video below is a great introduction to etiquette in general and why it matters:

THE KEY THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN DOING BUSINESS ABROAD

When it comes to international business etiquette there are things you can do no matter what country you are going to. If you are preparing for an international meeting and you aren’t sure about the cultures of the people at the meeting, the following guidelines will guarantee that you act in a respectful manner and remember to avoid sensitive areas.

In addition, if you are heading out to a specific region or a country for business, you can do in-depth research based on the following key areas.

The key differences in cultures you need to understand

Gender roles

When it comes to international business, gender roles can cause a lot of confusion. Understanding the appropriate gender etiquette can help you avoid uncomfortable situations.

Most often, gender roles are about personal boundaries and physical contact with men and women. In many countries, especially in the Arab world, women shouldn’t shake hands with men, for instance. Furthermore, older generations in countries like Japan are not often comfortable shaking hands with Western women. If you are a woman traveling or you know there will be women at the business meeting, it is important to come to grips with the gender roles to navigate meetings in a respectful manner and to prepare yourself for how you might be approached in the country.

Personal space

Personal space varies with respect to gender, but personal space is important in other contexts as well. In general, South American countries can be a lot more physical, even in a business context, than Asian countries.

Naturally, there are differences within countries in the same continent. For example, European nations are very different when it comes to personal space. While the French don’t mind kisses on the cheek when greeting, the Finns are especially careful about their personal space.

The alcohol culture

Food and drink are a big part of doing business these days. In many countries, a business dinner or lunch is part of the deal making process, so it is important to understand the food and drink culture of the country you are travelling to.

The alcohol culture is especially important, as you don’t want to be ordering wine with your meal in countries where combining alcohol and business are a big ‘no-no’. It isn’t even just about cultures where alcohol is fully prohibited. Even countries such as Australia, where drinking is not unusual after work, drinking during business meetings is discouraged. On the other hand, in Russia, sharing a drink with your business partners can help establish a closer relationship.

Business gifts

When it comes to doing business, handing out gifts is often considered a lovely thing to do. But countries and cultures vary greatly on what type of gifts are considered appropriate. In many Western countries, gifts can often be considered inappropriate in the first place, while in Asia gifts are very much expected.

Issues surrounding the business culture

Finally, you should be aware of the specific differences in the business culture within countries and cultures. There are great differences in cultures when it comes to the way you conduct business and maintain relationships. If you want your international business relationships to flourish, you need to master the specific aspects of the business culture.

To master appropriate business etiquette in the business culture, focus on the following themes:

  • Showing respect – There isn’t a country in the world where you don’t need to be respectful but there are different ways of getting around it and you have to be extra cautious in certain situations. For example, in Japan it is extremely important to show your respect to the older generations, while this isn’t as important necessarily in Western countries. While shaking hands in the US is considered respectful, in Japan, a simple bow might be considered more respectful.
  • Business cards – There are some cultures where the handing out business cards is especially important and in many cultures there are unwritten rules as to when and where you are able to hand out the cards. For instance, Japan takes business cards almost ceremonially, whereas Italians do not like exchanging business cards outside of business functions.
  • Talking about deals – Whereas you might be able to get straight to the point in countries like Germany, there are many cultures, such as many Arab countries, where you need to keep it casual for a long time before starting to talk business.
  • The word ‘no’ – Interestingly, your international business etiquette needs to tune into the use of the word ‘no’. While many Western countries can be very direct during business meetings without considering it rude, in other cultures you need to be very careful in how you decline things.

REGIONAL BUSINESS ETIQUETTE TIPS

While the above provides you with an understanding of the key etiquette areas on which to focus, the following section covers some essential country-specific etiquette tips. If you are traveling to any of these countries or doing business with people from these countries, these etiquette tips are crucial to keep in mind.

Asia

China

  • Provide a gift for the person you are conducting business with but keep the following in mind:
    • When handing out the gift always use both hands.
    • Don’t give a watch as a gift, as it represents death in China.
    • Avoid black, blue or white wrapping paper.
    • Chinese people will decline the gift three times, but you need to insist they take it. When you are provided with a gift, you should do the same.
  • Chinese people appreciate a conservative dress code and you should avoid physical contact while conversing.
  • If you happen to have family roots in China, you can give yourself a Chinese name to use when doing business in the country. This is considered a sign of respect, but you should only do it if you have Chinese roots or you have moved to the country to do long-term business.
  • After a business meeting, allow Chinese partners to leave the meeting room first.

Japan

  • In Japan, bowing is a typical way of greeting each other. Handshakes sometimes occur but you should let the Japanese person initiate it.
  • The business meeting is often led by the senior member in the group, while younger members converse less out of respect.
    • Furthermore, similarly positioned people in different groups should sit across from each other. Junior position employees should never sit across from senior employees.
  • Giving gifts is common, but you should pay special attention to how you present your gift. Never hand out a gift that isn’t wrapped!
  • Japan is especially sensitive to the word ‘no’. In the country, it is customary to respond with a ‘yes’ even if you disagree with what is being said.

India

  • While you can show up to meetings on time, don’t be surprised if Indian business partners are late.
  • Like in Japan, the word ‘no’ can be considered rude in India. Try to use words like ‘We will see’ or ‘Possibly’ instead of saying ‘no’.
  • If you are offered a meal by your business partner, never say ‘Thank you’ at the end of it, as it is considered to be a payment on your behalf and therefore insulting.
    • Avoid eating beef at business meetings!

Latin America

Brazil

  • Business meetings often last longer than planned, but do not leave before the meeting has officially ended. Leaving early is considered rude.
  • In Brazil, physical contact during conversation is natural and highlights the trust between business partners.
  • Unlike in India, eating with your hands in Brazil should be avoided. Even if you were eating a sandwich, you’d want to use a napkin or other such utensil.

Europe

The United Kingdom

  • When conversing with the British, try saying ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Sorry’ frequently, as this is considered polite.
  • The British often don’t retain eye contact during a conversation.
  • Unlike Brazilians, Brits like to have personal space, so don’t stand too close.

Germany

  • Business events are well-structured and straight to the point. You don’t want to be joking during business meetings.
  • Be punctual and on time – Germans are hardworking, so you want to highlight your respect toward this attitude.
  • When entering business meetings, allow the oldest person to enter the room first.

North America

The United States

  • You can conduct business even outside meetings – for instance, Americans often talk business over breakfast, lunch or dinner.
  • Don’t give gifts to your US business partners, as this can be considered bribery. Handwritten notes to say ‘Thank you’ are sufficient.
  • The firmer the handshake the better impression you’ll make.

Canada

  • Like Germans, Canadians are punctual and being on time is considered a sign of respect.

Oceania

Australia

  • Australians are quite relaxed about the dress code, even in business meetings.

New Zealand

  • Be on time for business meetings and come early if possible.
  • During a meal, conversing should be kept to a minimum and continued after the meal is eaten.
    • Don’t talk business over dinner – if you need a business meeting over food, organize it for lunchtime.

HOW TO PREPARE WHEN DOING BUSINESS ABROAD

The above should provide you with essential information on specific countries, as well as help you focus on finding information on the key themes and differences in international business etiquette.

You need to approach international business travel carefully and make sure you prepare yourself well for doing business with people from different cultures. If you are appropriately prepared, you can have much more success with your business ventures.

How should you start your preparations? Here are a few crucial tips to help you get started.

As soon as you know where you are doing business, start learning about the culture. You can find amazing information on countries from basic travel guides, and it’s a good idea to talk to colleagues who have conducted business in the country before.

Learning about the culture will give you an advantage and it shows a lot of respect toward your hosts as well. Even if you end up making small mistakes, you can recover a lot by showing real interest toward the culture. Understanding the key things about the culture will also help you feel more relaxed and confident – you can just focus on the essential, which is doing business!

Use the above key themes as your guide when you are doing research. You can even jot down some notes about the key points and go over them while you are flying to your destination.

Second, it is important to keep focused on the purpose of the meeting. For example, if you are invited to a business lunch with your partners, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are supposed to do business. Learn the etiquette to ensure you understand what the meeting is all about.

This also encompasses the understanding of how much business you are supposed to talk at the official business meeting. If you are doing business in the Middle East, for example, official business meetings might involve quite a bit of small talk, while in countries like Germany you get straight to the point.

Finally, international business etiquette isn’t only about knowing how to behave in the company of your international business partners. You also need to understand how you should keep in touch after the business meeting. Sometimes a card and a gift to say thank you will be required, but sometimes a simple e-mail will do.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The above should provide you plenty of insight into the key aspects of international business etiquette. The importance of correct and respectful behavior is enormous and it could be the difference between success and failure. It is crucial to start preparing yourself early and learn enough about the specific country before you must travel or meet partners from these countries.

Be mindful of the differences in the culture and try to showcase great understanding and interest toward the specific culture. Don’t be fazed by making mistakes. Good preparation should keep you safe, but if you happen to upset your business partners, apologize and explain yourself.

If you are conducting long-term business in a specific country, learning the language can often be beneficial and it will enhance your understanding of the business culture. If you don’t have enough time to learn a language or prepare extensively, guides like this and professional interpreters can provide you with enough information to avoid making the most crucial mistakes.

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