International Business Etiquette

A Handy Little Guide to International Business Etiquette

Written by Lindsay Kolowich | @
international-business
Success in business comes down to building strong relationships with our associates. As our jobs become more and more globalized, many of us find ourselves traveling and building relationships with people across international borders, where manners and expectations might be different than we're used to.
The ins and outs of international business etiquette can get confusing. For example, punctuality is of utmost importance in England, but in France, you're considered to be "on time" if you arrive 10 minutes late. The intricacies unique to each country's business practices can be difficult to keep track of, but they can make or break your international business relationships.
To help you transition seamlessly into doing business in countries other than your own, we gathered tips for conducting business from natives of several countries from around the world. (Note that the tips below are based on their personal experiences, and yours may differ. If you have tips to add or personal experiences to share, please do so in the comment section below!)

Asia

China

  • Punctuality is important.
  • Business attire is fairly formal.
  • The exchange of business cards is a very formal procedure. (This is especially true in Japan, but can be true in China as well.) Business cards should be presented with both hands and accompanied by a head nod. Once business cards are exchanged, it's polite to examine the other person's business card carefully before putting it away. Put it somewhere special, like your breast pocket or an intentional spot in your briefcase.
  • Many business meetings take place around a large, round table. The highest-ranking host will sit at the chair directly facing the main door, while the highest-ranking guest will sit on the right-hand side of the main host.
  • Drinks or food items offered by the host should not be refused. It's considered rude to say that you're "full."
  • Gifts aren't mandatory, but it's acceptable to bring gifts as a sign of respect.
  • Criticism and negative feedback should never be given in public or in front of a large group of people.
  • It's inappropriate to push for a final decision in a first meeting, as decisions are not made in the meeting themselves. Typically, decisions are made after a meeting ends, once the entire group has a chance to collectively make a decision.

Japan

  • Punctuality is important.
  • Business attire is formal, like a suit and tie or a dress.
  • Even more so than in China, the exchange of business cards is a very formal procedure. Business cards should be presented with both hands and accompanied by a head nod. Once business cards are exchanged, it's polite to examine the other person's business card carefully -- and even comment on it before putting it away. Put it somewhere special, like your breast pocket or an intentional spot in your briefcase.
  • It's expected that visitors bring small gifts for their hosts. These gifts are tokens of appreciation and can be small and low-value -- the act of giving is more important than the gift itself -- but they should be wrapped. Make sure to give gifts to everyone present, as it's considered rude to leave anyone out. (Pro tip: Bring extras.) Allow your Japanese counterpart to initiate the gift giving, and receive their gift with both hands accompanied by a small bow. Don't be surprised if they refuse your gift once or twice -- they will usually accept it the second or third time.
  • The senior executive in the room might close his or her eyes and appear to be sleeping. This is a signal to others in the room that s/he trusts his colleagues to handle the meeting.
  • It's inappropriate to push for a final decision in a first meeting, as decisions are not made in the meeting themselves. Typically, decisions are made after a meeting ends, once the entire group has a chance to collectively make a decision.
  • Visitors should account for activities to follow business meetings that take place over dinner or drinks. Karaoke is an especially common post-dinner activity in Japan.
  • Criticism and negative feedback should never be given in public or in front of a large group of people.

India

  • Punctuality is not super important. It's not considered rude to be a little bit late -- within reason, of course.
  • In private business meetings, a simple handshake is an acceptable greeting. Be prepared to fold your hands and greet your host by saying "Namaste" if they initiate this type of greeting.
  • Business meetings are very social. Small talk is expected before getting to the "point" of the meeting -- in fact, it's considered rude to rush through that part. Typically, the first few minutes of a meeting are spent chatting about the family.
  • Tea and coffee are offered at every meeting, and it's expected that all attendees accept something -- even if it's a glass of water.
  • In conversation, it's considered rude to be direct. Rather, it's preferable to speak in a more circular way. For example, instead of saying, "No, it's too expensive," you might say, "Could we make the price a little better? I do want to buy this, but I can't afford it right now."
  • Gift-giving isn't expected in a first meeting, and isn't necessarily expected in later meetings unless you build a close relationship.

Pakistan

  • Soft drinks or chai are often offered at business meetings. 
  • Conversing informally and intimately with clients is not seen as "schmoozing" -- it's seen as a sign of respect. In large, corporate businesses, there are even dedicated positions for making and delivering chai, called the "chai wala."

Europe

Ireland

  • Firm handshakes are the standard way to greet one another in a business meeting.
  • Foreign visitors are expected to be very punctual.
  • Depending on the context, there is a good chance visitors will be brought out for dinner and drinks. If so, visitors should anticipate being involved in "rounds" where they'll be expected to buy drinks for everyone when it's their turn.

Germany

  • Punctuality is important.
  • In business conversation, everyone should be addressed using Mr./Ms./Mrs. no matter what the power relationship is. This is true unless you are expressly asked by your senior to address him or her informally.
  • It's not acceptable to remove your suit jacket in a business meeting. This could even be considered rude.

England 

  • Time is considered to be an incredibly valuable resource, and it's expected that you show up for an appointment exactly on time or slightly early.
  • Hugging, kissing, and touching are generally reserved for family members and close friends. Allow for a certain amount of personal space.

France

  • Punctuality is not super important. You're considered "on time" if you're 10 minutes late.
  • Business attire is formal, fashionable, and well-tailored.
  • It's not acceptable to remove your suit jacket in a business meeting. This could even be considered rude.
  • Polite eating habits are very important: eating with your mouth shut; finishing your plate; hands on the table (but not elbows); not making slurping sounds when you drink; etc.

Latin America

These etiquette tips are true for most Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. This includes Chile, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and México.
  • Men greeting other men shake hands, while women greeting both men and women kiss on the cheek. If you're familiar with one another, it may also be appropriate to hug and tap on the back.
  • Latin Americans converse at a close distance and are casual in demeanor and speech. Maintaining eye contact is necessary to show interest and sincerity. It's also common to hug each other very often in casual conversations when emotions need to be expressed.
  • Titles have become much more casual in the last years, and people refer to each other by their first names in business situations, and in second person. Older executives might prefer to be addressed with the title “Señor” or “Señora” (Mr. or Mrs.). A more formal term to refer to superiors in more hierarchical organizations is "Usted." This term is used in more respectful and formal way -- for example, if an analyst were referring to a member of the board or senior executive.
  • Punctuality is not strictly enforced. At the business level, it's acceptable to be 5-10 minutes late as long as you notify in advance. Meetings usually have a start time, but they don't usually have an end time and tend to run long.
  • Attendees of social functions usually arrive about 30 minutes later than the invite time. (Don’t worry, this behavior is usually accounted for by the host.) At social gatherings, hosts don't expect people to arrive exactly at the time of the invite -- in fact, he or she will probably not be ready by then.
  • Personal relationships are really important in Latin America. Because of this, in a first meeting, it's expected that that most of the time is spent establishing a rapport -- andthen steering the conversation toward business.
  • Business meetings and negotiations are often centered around food and drinks.
  • Need ice breaking tips? Soccer is the common theme in the region. Try to be up-to-date on any soccer tournament that's going around the world at the time. It also helps to know the names some of the famous soccer players in the country you're visiting.

Brazil

  • It's expected that a significant amount of effort is put into appearance, including neat and formal clothing, well-kempt hair, and neat/manicured nails.
  • It's considered rude to jump right into business conversation. It's expected that conversation flow fairly informally, especially at first.
  • In business meetings, it's not uncommon for opposite-sex business associates to greet one another with a kiss on the cheek, especially if they've worked together a few times already.
  • Punctuality isn't super important and meetings are usually started late. Visitors should allow for extra time for each appointment.
  • Small cups of coffee (usually black, kind of like an espresso shot) known as "cafézinho" are usually offered before a meeting.
  • It's common to sign off on business emails with "Abraços" ("Hugs") -- men and women alike. 

Oceania

The following are some etiquette tips for both Australia and New Zealand.
  • Punctuality is important.
  • It's common to greet associates with a handshake. It's also common for women to greet other women or men with kisses on the cheek.
  • Business is commonly done over drinks, particularly beer. Visitors should anticipate being involved in "rounds" where they'll be expected to buy drinks for everyone when it's their turn.

North America

United States

  • Punctuality is important.
  • Business associates typically greet each other with a handshake.
  • While building personal relationships with business associates is considered important, small talk is kept at a minimum during designated meeting times -- unless the meeting is held over drinks or a meal.
Have any to add? Share them with us in the comments below!
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