A Guide To Global Business Etiquette

Heading to a new country to live and work means adjusting to new time zones, new languages and new ways of doing things.

It may be rude to wave to a friend, or you may unexpectedly find yourself bearhugged by the boss. Do you tip in a restaurant? Can you order rounds in the bar? Do you eat a meal with cutlery, chopsticks or your hands?

The etiquette minefield becomes even more treacherous when big business deals may depend on your ability to schmooze in an entirely new way.It might not matter how strong your expertise in an area, or how strong your CV; if you manage to insult or upset the client you’ll be losing their business quickly.

Making the effort to learn a little about your new culture seems like an obvious thing to do, but the nuances of workplace manners are often ignored in textbooks.

Even though a day of meetings in Japan may end with steak and sake, don’t make the mistake of losing your professional cool. In France meetings may start with a kiss on the cheek, but don’t go in to smooch if there’s a hand out waiting to be shaken.

So as you polish up your CV for that exciting new job, make sure you also work on your international business manners.

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UK

The British business world is wide and varied, with creative industries being much more relaxed and familiar than high finance. But even in the more chilled-out industries, there are some boundaries that are set in stone.

Handshakes and formal greetings are a good way to start with a business relationship, making sure you introduce your client to your team in order of seniority, including their names and job titles. Mr Jones or Ms Smith should remain so until they invite you to “call me John” or “please, it’s Jane” which will probably happen fairly quickly.

Meetings may not start immediately as polite small talk often comes first, but don’t arrive late or unprepared for the conference. Any appointments or bookings should be made with a few days’ notice and should be stuck to; if something comes up, send apologies as soon as possible and rearrange.

Business cards are not universal in the UK, so don’t be offended if your card is accepted and you don’t get one in return. Brits will quite often save details into phones or address books.

Gifts aren’t a common feature of business dealings in the UK, but if invited to a client’s home for a meal or party be sure to bring a bottle of wine or a bunch of flowers to say thanks.

Egypt

Building working relationships in Egypt can take a long time as Egyptians tend to prefer doing business with people they know and respect. This means building up trust in you as an individual as well as your company.

There’s a code of honour in play within any Egyptian relationship, so rumours or allegations about you can be as damaging as actual bad news. This plays into you being trustworthy, keeping your word on even informal agreements and dressing like a smart, conscientious professional.

This same system of honour means that you’ll be extended a warm welcoming hand, and hospitality means you’ll be given tea or coffee at the start of every meeting. Even if you don’t fancy a cuppa, accept this brew as it is symbolic of your growing relationship.

When meeting someone of the same gender, shake hands and kiss both cheeks alternately. Men should only shake hands with women and only if they extend their hands first; otherwise offer a small nod and smile of greeting.

The majority of Egyptians identify as Muslim but to varying degrees of piety, so be ready for the working day to be interrupted by prayer and for business to slow down during the Ramadan fast.

France

French business takes place with an air of formality, with Monsieur and Madame taking the place of first names. Remember to use the formal nouns when in the office; the French keep a distance between work and home life with the use of language underscoring the boundary.

Even within the formality of the situation, discussions can be heated as details are scrutinized and discussed at length. Business happens slowly and carefully in France, so don’t try to push things along with aggressive tactics as these will quickly backfire.

When decisions are made they will be made at the top of the company, with policy informing everybody further down the business. Even after shaking hands on a deal there may be a delay as intricately worded documents are written to seal the deal.

Whilst your French counterparts might be multilingual, make an effort to learn some of their language, especially to ask if the meeting can continue in English. Another kudos-winning tactic is to have one side of your card in English, the other in French; a detail which will win respect and show an interest in developing your relationship.

Last but not least, avoid plotting any big ideas for July or August. This is the high season for holidays when very little business will be done.

Spain

Spain is big on loyalty, so expect to spend time building up contacts and establishing yourself as someone who can be trusted. Once you’ve won their trust, Spaniards will stay loyal to you rather than your business, so if you move on to another company, you may find your clients come with you.

Consequently there is a big emphasis put on the character of individuals, so when you meet face-to-face, make eye contact whilst modestly promoting your achievements.

Remember there is a hierarchy in Spanish businesses and respect this; don’t start going over people’s heads as this is considered disrespectful and will reflect poorly on you.

The most difficult part of trading in Spain will be that fact that many Spaniards won’t voice their opinions in a meeting; you’ll have to read their body language and adjust your pitch accordingly.

India

India is a diverse country and a rapidly growing player on the global market. For all the religious and ethnic variation in the country, all relationships are built on respect.

This hierarchical culture means you should always greet the eldest person in the room first, shake hands and say ‘namaste’. Be aware that there are many different greetings to match the mix of ethnic groups and social classes and these will also affect the respectful naming of people.

Indians tend to avoid the word ‘no’, which can make negotiation difficult. Watch out for anyone who agrees to a plan and then gets vague about the details, they probably meant ‘no’ in the first place. This can be incredibly frustrating, but the quickest way to lose face is to lose your temper, so stay calm.

Education is greatly respected in India, so make sure any post-nominal letters you are entitled to use appear on your business card.

Korea

It is essential to get a third-party introduction to any potential clients here; Korean life and business works on the principle of harmony. If nobody recommends you, you are an unknown and potentially disruptive quantity. This third party may also be a valuable liaison between you, smoothing over any issues and keeping talks on track.

Even so, Koreans tend to be very direct negotiators, questioning your methods and asking for more information often. Be sure you are ready to give a direct answer to these questions but be careful of criticizing anyone in the process, causing them to lose face.

Saying ‘no’ can also cause the loss of face, so be careful how you ask questions. Ask when a project may be complete, rather than if it will be ready by a specific date.

Brazil

Brazilian business will be put on hold for big occasions, so never book a meeting during Mardi Gras, and expect the Rio Olympics to wreak havoc with your diary.

The Brazilian boardroom can be a lively affair as business hierarchies are fairly relaxed and anyone can make their opinions known, with it being perfectly acceptable to interrupt each other.

If your Portuguese is not tip-top, hire an interpreter to sit in. The pace of discussions may be frenetic and important to the relationship, even if the ‘getting to know you phase’ seems to drag on.

Be patient and go with the flow. Brazilian business runs slower than in other parts of the world and appearing impatient can cost you in terms of both face and turnover.

Germany

The German stereotype of efficient, serious workers may have some basis in fact; businesses in the country operate to carefully planned timetables, so don’t be late for a meeting.

Expect to follow an established routine of protocol, with hierarchical relationships and a lot of written communication keeping standard procedures ticking along.

Whilst English is often spoken to a high level, make an effort to understand German as the formalities of business dictate certain grammar forms for people of certain ranks. Be ready to greet the boss formally, even after months of working with them.

German offices rarely operate an open door policy. Anyone with an office will probably keep their door closed, so get used to knocking and waiting for an invitation.

UAE

As with much of the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates are opening up to trade with the West but still require an element cultural sensitivity.

First, understand that the role of women in UAE society is very different. When greeting women, do not presume to shake hands. Instead, nod a greeting and avoid prolonged eye contact. Foreign women working in the Emirates should be prepared to cover their hair, but many larger companies have experience working with Western women.

Arab trade was traditionally based around haggling, and it can still be found throughout the business culture. Boardroom meetings may meander around various subjects while attendees make calls or entirely different meetings take place in a corner. Negotiations will eventually be reached on terms of honour; although contracts will be signed, it’s a matter of personal trust to deliver what you have promised.

Japan

Japan has an ancient culture that rapidly accelerated from feudal society to global industrial power and leading technology giant. This has created a nation with a unique psyche and a way of doing business that is very different from anywhere else in the world.

Japanese executives may have gone to great lengths to learn how to work with outsiders, but unless you make the effort to understand them too, there is great potential for embarrassing misunderstandings.

First impressions are very important and the early seconds of any meeting may make or break the continuing relationship. As an outsider you should introduce yourself with a handshake and a nod instead of a bow. Make sure you state your full name and job title, as this will allow your Japanese colleagues to work out your position in the hierarchy, which is of great importance.

Potential business relationships are analysed in terms of trust, sincerity and compatibility; the easiest way to pass or fail this test is by fouling up the business card ceremony. Offer your card Japanese side up, cradling it with both hands and accept the return card with both hands to show respect. Be careful to do this exchange without any barriers between you; even a table or chair represents a division between the two parties.

In Japan there is an art form to being understood. No business meeting will involve an overtly stated opinion; instead semi-cryptic comments will hint at the client’s firm desires.

Have you done business internationally? What differences in etiquette did you notice? Let us know in the comments!

Article by Andy Scofield, International Features Writer


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