Home Cultural Differences You Need to Know to Do Business Abroad

Cultural Differences You Need to Know to Do Business Abroad

Posted by on November 11th, 2015.

As doing business on a global scale becomes easier it’s more likely that you will end up dealing with people in other countries. While you may work for the same company, or in partnership towards common goals, everything from your outlook to your work ethic can differ greatly. Cultural differences can mean that something you wouldn’t give a passing thought to could be deeply offensive to your overseas colleagues.

For example, finishing your plate in Denmark is good manners, but doing so in China makes them feel like poor hosts who haven’t provided you with enough food.

Building strong relationships is key to smooth and successful business operations. Here are some important cultural customs you’ll need to know when attending business meetings abroad.


We consider punctuality to be quite important in the UK, although we can be quite forgiving in order to remain polite. In some countries, such as Canada, Germany and Australia, being late is looked upon much more unfavourably. In comparison, you can afford to be a few minutes late in Brazil and Spain. It’s not a goal to aim for, but it’s important to be aware that the person you are meeting may arrive a little late and to treat it as no big deal.

In any business situation it’s important to pay attention to the hierarchy. Both seniority and age are highly respected in Asian countries, so make sure you address the highest ranking and oldest people in the room.

While a handshake is considered the norm in many countries, it is not the only method of greeting. In Japan you should bow when you meet someone – they may offer to shake your hand, but don’t see it as a snub if they don’t.

Residents of other countries might not stop with a handshake, either. South American, Middle Eastern, and Southern European countries all have ‘high-contact’ cultures, so don’t act uncomfortably if the person you’re meeting invades your personal space.


Negotiating is an important part of making a business deal. Different cultures approach negotiating differently, with some seeing it as rude, while for others it is the norm.

Behaviours that are seen as projecting confidence and strength in countries like the UK and US can be impolite or disrespectful in places like Asia. Prolonged eye contact is a norm in polite conversation in the West, but it is considered rude in Japan. Other body language can be similarly problematic. A thumbs-up may convey agreement in the West, but in Sardinia or Greece it’s the equivalent of sticking your middle finger up at someone. Similarly, in Brazil the ‘OK’ gesture is considered offensive.

We all know there are certain words and phrases you shouldn’t use in a business context. When dealing with another culture, you need to be even more careful. Countries like India value a much more indirect way of speaking, in order to be polite, so an outright refusal can cause offense. It is better to say ‘we will see’ or ‘I can try’, even if you mean ‘no’.

Clarify your position to ensure both parties understand your agreement. In Spain, for instance, a short discussion on price and a handshake at the end of the meeting can be interpreted as finalising the deal, even if you were only trying to say goodbye.

Business Cards

In the West we often treat business cards as something to be gotten rid of, but in many cultures they are important items, and exchanging them borders on a ceremony. In countries such as Israel, Hong Kong, Singapore and China, you should present your business card with both hands. You should accept business cards with both hands as well, and treat them with respect. It may be common here to write notes on a business card, such as ‘email testimonials’ or ‘call tomorrow’, but in the countries listed above that would be considered rude.

As a general rule, treat a business card like a gift: show gratitude, spend some time examining it, and make sure to take it with you when you leave a meeting.

Preparation is Key

While the tips here present a good introduction to international business etiquette, it is important to spend time researching the culture and customs of any potential foreign business partners or customers. Each country has its own particular behaviours and standards, and even countries with similar cultures can hold different expectations and attitudes.

The wrong word or gesture could compromise a hard-earned business deal. Ensure you are thoroughly prepared for business meetings abroad and you can return home having achieved your goals and forged profitable relationships.

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