If you've travelled to a foreign country, you know that learning and following the local customs can be a bit nerve-racking. Nobody wants to embarrass themselves or, worse still, offend somebody. Now imagine if these embarrassing or offensive moments are not just momentary awkward incidents with strangers that can be forgotten as soon as you leave, but rather carry the weight of large sums of money and reflect not just on you but on an entire company, or even a whole country.
Business travellers know that feeling, and the only thing worse than the anxious anticipation of making a mistake, is that sinking feeling you have when you know you've just transgressed an unwritten foreign custom and will now have to sheepishly return to your boss at home trying to think of an excuse as to why the contract talks fell through.
But how are you to know the gift-giving customs in Japan? How do you learn about conversation dos-and-don’ts in Southern Europe? Where is it permissible to blow your nose at loud volume during a partner’s presentation? Well, the last one’s easy (nowhere) but for the rest of the answers you seek on business etiquettes, simply read this article.
First thing’s first, what to wear? If you’re a man, the safe answer is usually a suit, but times are definitely changing with regards to formality. Make sure you look neat. If you’re a woman, you have a few more options, which itself has its own pros and cons. Aim to look quite neutral; plain colours and clothes that are not flashy or distracting, so your personality and experience is what’s on show.
The main question that arises from business travel is, “How much of my personality should I show in my outfit”? It’s essentially a question of how much you want to show off and stand out. For example, in East Asia and Northern Europe, it’s best to play it conservatively. Wear as nice a suit or blouse as you want, but keep it basic: black, grey, or dark blue. As for ties, you probably could be a little more adventurous, but maybe it’s best not to risk it, at least not on your first visit. These matters can be tricky and difficult to know, so it’s best to err on the side of conservative and basic.
However, in Southern Europe and parts of Latin America, this type of dress can seem bland. You don’t want to come off as drab and awful, so maybe pack a colourful shirt, skirt, or tie with you. However, just because you’re in Italy, you don’t have permission to dress flashy. You’re still on a business trip, so keep those Hawaiian shirts and fuchsia dress pants at home.
Now that you’re all dressed, you have a place to go. Presumably, a business meeting. But when should you arrive there? Well, obviously, on time. Or better yet, slightly (but not too) early.
Every group of friends has one person who they always tell to show up a half hour earlier than they intend to be there. You can’t think of who that person is in your group? Then –uh oh!—that person is you. Don’t be that person!
Punctuality varies in importance from region to region. In the United States and Canada, it is important to be on time, as being late can be a sign of disrespect and unprofessionalism. The same is true (perhaps even more so) for Australia, New Zealand, and much of Northern Europe. And if you’re in East Asia, don’t even think about being late. In Japan, transit officials actually offer little cards if the subway train is as little as two minutes late in order to excuse your lateness. If you show up to a meeting late there, you had better be in crutches because the Shinkansen just ran over your foot.
For any of the aforementioned places, it’s best to remember the axiom, “If you’re not five minutes early, you’re one minute late”. But tardiness is not a mortal sin everywhere. If you find yourself waiting around in Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, or the Caribbean for a business associate, don’t take it personally. These cultures have a more relaxed attitude towards time and punctuality.
Does that mean you, too, should be five to ten minutes late? Absolutely not. Perhaps the people you are to meet, knowing you are from a culture that prides itself on punctuality, might make an effort to arrive earlier than they normally would, and you don’t want to keep them waiting. Wherever you are, just show up a few minutes early, and if your counterparts have not arrived yet, just take a few breaths and relax.
#3: Greetings and salutations
Now you’re dressed well, you’ve arrived on time for your meeting, and your associates have shown up as well. How to greet them? In Western cultures, you go with the handshake, and this is acceptable in most places. The most notable exception is Japan where, even though many businesspersons are often more than prepared and happy to shake the hand of a Westerner, a slight bow is a sign of good faith and acknowledgement of their culture.
If you’re in a Latin country, do not be shocked if when meeting somebody of the opposite sex, they go for a polite kiss on each cheek. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s probably best to just politely go with it, but it would be unwise to go for this move yourself unless you’re familiar with the person and know this would be a welcome gesture.
In terms of addressing your compatriots, remember it’s important to keep a formal atmosphere. Wherever you are in the world, it’s always safe to use one’s surname unless they specifically ask you to use their given name. Make sure you know the appropriate titles in any given language (for example, Mr/Ms/Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle/Señor/Señora/Señorita). Professional titles can also be very important. In the United States, it’s not always necessary to refer to a PhD holder as “Doctor”, but in some places, such as Argentina, you should always refer to them as “Doctor”.
It seems that every week there’s another short video making the rounds on social media telling you that you’ve been eating foreign foods all wrong. Honestly, these are rarely a big deal. If you hold your chopsticks the wrong way, no reasonable person is going to be offended by this.
The most important thing to know about eating with business associates is when it is appropriate to book a business meal. In some cultures, India, for example, only business lunches are acceptable. In other nations, such as Costa Rica, only business suppers are customary. As always, do your own research before going anywhere.
In many cultures, it is polite to make some casual conversation before getting down to business. In the United States or United Kingdom, one might compliment another’s tie or suit jacket, or ask after a colleague’s family, if they’re familiar enough.
In some places, such as Northern European countries, this behaviour can come off as intrusive and inappropriate. Furthermore, if you’re in an elevator in Brazil, don’t be surprised if somebody clasps you on the shoulder and asks what you did last night. Try this behaviour in Germany, however, and expect to get nothing but awkward silence. Steely-eyed, grim, Germanic silence. Think you can break the tension with a joke? Don’t. Please don’t.
#6: Gift giving
For some cultures (most Western ones), gift giving is a nice gesture, but certainly not expected. In other cultures, a small gift is a customary part of almost any interaction. One such place is Japan, but a small gift is not enough. The gift should be wrapped or placed in a decorative bag. The actual gift itself is less important the presentation.
There are also some cultures in which the physical hand you use to give the gift is important. In South Africa, you should not present a gift with your left hand, for reasons that are apparent to nobody. But every culture is allowed their own idiosyncrasies.
This last facet of international business can be tricky. The contract, as a legally binding document, is often imperative to have for many companies in many countries. However, there are some cultures in which business is done on a handshake (or the cultural equivalent) and one’s word should be sufficient enough.
If you’re task is get a contract signed, then you must insist on this with your colleagues. However, for smaller agreements, do not be surprised if your international partners are sometimes taken aback at your insistence on the use of a contract.
For your next meeting
Whether you're in Marketing, Beauty Therapy or Information Technology, you might be working with, or have clients from all over the world. Hopefully this article will help you out. If you’re ready to launch into new career, check out Upskilled’s range of online courses; all available in a flexible format.