Home Taking Your Business Global? Top Tips on International Business Etiquette

Taking Your Business Global? Top Tips on International Business Etiquette

Posted by on November 9th, 2017.

It’s easy to assume that the way you approach business will be exactly the same whether the meeting room is in London, New York or Tokyo. However, an attitude, expression or gesture that’s second nature to you at home could be considered exceptionally rude in another country.

Keeping track of all the differences in business etiquette that exist across international borders can be a bit of a headache, but a simple misunderstanding could be enough to undermine all your hard work and result in a deal falling through. With that in mind, here are a few tips to get you primed for any potential business meetings in some of the major international markets.

When in the US

Without the language barriers encountered in other countries, conducting business in the US could be viewed as the same as operating in the UK. However, Americans have their own way of doing things and often have slightly different expectations to us Brits when approaching business.

The US values directness and saying exactly what you mean, even if it may not be entirely positive. You mustn’t be afraid to take the lead in a meeting and aim to project at least some degree of dominance without becoming overbearing. Americans are generally all for selling yourself and your business acumen rather than heaping on modesty, so try to avoid any instinct to understate your abilities.

Time is money for many Americans so be prepared to get straight to the point, even if small talk is still generally expected. Business settings and approaches can vary markedly between the east and west coasts of the US, with places like Silicon Valley likely to take a more informal approach to meetings.

When in Canada

Even though Canada shares a border with the US, Canadians are typically not as direct-minded as Americans. In fact, Canada is quite close to the UK in terms of its work culture so you may find yourself a little more at home when dealing with Canadians. Still, be sure to watch out for any of the small linguistic differences that could cause confusion.

While English is the more common business language in Canada, it’s worth remembering that French is also an official national language. If the company you’re meeting with is based in Quebec then at least some passing knowledge of French could be beneficial. This could signal a greater understanding of your prospective client and may even help to smooth the way to a deal.

Punctuality is important wherever you conduct business, but Canadians may be less forgiving that other nationalities when it comes to lateness.

When in Brazil

Perceptions of personal space tend to be slightly different in Brazil – and indeed other Latin American nations – so don’t be surprised if a Brazilian stands a little closer than you might think necessary during a conversation.

Brazilians are generally a friendly and tactile bunch, with it not being uncommon to throw arms around people’s shoulders or give a work colleague a literal pat on the back. Even if it may not come naturally you should try not to shy away from eye contact and be prepared for a firm, long handshake both when you enter and exit a meeting.

While Brazilians are generally quite open and friendly, be aware that it is not uncommon for a speaker to be interrupted. Although meetings can have a habit of running over the allotted time that’s no excuse to leave early, and any attempt to do so could be seen as a lack of commitment.

If you happen to have a working lunch then be careful not to eat with your hands, even if it’s a sandwich or something else you would normally consider finger food. Either use a napkin or a knife and fork!

When in Germany

As one of the global centres of manufacturing – particularly in the automobile industry – Germany is a country where businesses don’t mess about and are keen to stick to the point. Small talk isn’t encouraged in a business setting, instead prepare to get down to the nitty-gritty as soon as the pleasantries are out of the way. With a clear divide between home and business it would be best to stick to impersonal topics if the opportunity for small talk does arise.

Germans do have something of a reputation for bluntness, which some might consider to border on rudeness, so don’t expect to receive any sugar-coated comments in a German meeting room. Feel free to be similarly honest yourself, although you should still be wary of alienating associates.

German cars are famously built on precision so expect to be held to similar standards, and make sure that you are always punctual for any meetings as delays are unlikely to go down well. Always dress for business, regardless of the weather, as informality is far from the norm amongst German companies.

When in France

One of the things dearest to the hearts of the French is their language, with laws dictating that official and workplace documents must be in French. As a result, some knowledge of French is always preferable when doing business in France, although a lack of fluency isn’t a particular barrier considering that English is also widely understood.

Even so, you could make a good impression if you at least learn enough to apologise for your lack of French; a simple ‘désolé, je ne parle pas français’ is likely to go down well.

Like some of their European neighbours the French tend to have rather long lunch breaks, sometimes lasting up to two hours. As a proudly culinary nation, the French put emphasis on the proper appreciation of food and the value of socialising over a meal. If you’re going to attend a meeting over lunch be prepared for it to last, things will almost inevitably go at their own pace.

When in The Emirates

Relationships are important to Emiratis, a formal introduction through a trusted mutual contact is the best way to start a conversation with local businesses and potential clients. Trust is key within the local business culture so once you have formed a relationship with an associate then it’s important to make sure you cultivate it over time, potentially opening further doors down the road. Face-to-face meetings are always preferred.

Crucially, never offer to shake with your left hand, as local custom considers this hand to be reserved for hygiene. This extends to passing all documents or business cards with your right hand, which may be an adjustment to the left-handed.

Be aware that calls and messages may well be taken during a meeting, as this is not considered to be rude by Emiratis who are simply being dutiful in responding rapidly.

When in India

Lefties may also find themselves having trouble in India, where the left hand is equally considered to be unclean. This may take some getting used to but it’s important to show respect towards the cultural beliefs of any business associates, especially when in their home country.

Outright refusal is generally seen as rude in Indian culture so don’t expect to hear the word ‘no’ all that often, instead get used to a lot of ‘maybes’ and other more non-committal answers. As a rule you should try to avoid directly saying ‘no’ either in order to avoid offending your hosts. So, unless you hear a firm ‘yes’ then be aware that you may not actually see the fruits of an agreement materialise any time soon.

Questions about people’s personal lives are not generally considered to be out of bounds, so don’t be surprised if someone asks how much you earn during the course of a casual conversation. While you don’t have to be quite so direct yourself, personal questions shouldn’t be taken as a cause for offence.

When in China

Respect for seniority is very important within Chinese culture and this translates into the business place as well. Always greet the oldest person in the room first and then proceed around the room, leaving the youngest employee until last. You should equally be prepared to have to wait your turn if you’re one of the younger parties attending the meeting, with the more senior members from your own team likely to be given priority.

Direct eye contact while shaking hands is strongly discouraged, as this can come across as too aggressive and even disrespectful. Any perception of challenging authority is unlikely to be smiled upon.

Similarly, you should make sure that you are never the first one to leave the meeting, as this could be perceived as a lack of commitment by those you’re dealing with. If possible give your Chinese affiliates the opportunity to leave the room first, unless you are being specifically shown out.

When in Japan

The individual plays less of a role within the Japanese business mind-set, which focuses more on the collective. As a result decisions will usually be made as a group and can therefore take some time to materialise. Don’t expect to walk out of an initial meeting with a firm arrangement agreed upon, as the company will want time to discuss any proposals amongst themselves before offering a formal answer.

While bowing might be a preferred greeting within the country this does not rule out the possibility of a handshake, so let your opposite number lead with whichever greeting they see as appropriate.

It’s also important to understand the concept of face when dealing with Japanese associates – although this does also apply to a number of other Asian cultures. This ties back into the strong grounding of respect and reputation within the culture, with individuals keen to avoid any perceived humiliations or embarrassment in front of others.

As a result, the use of ‘no’ is decidedly limited, with affiliates likely to circle round a direct refusal in order to remain polite. A Japanese business person may well use a ‘yes’ merely as a form of acknowledgement, establishing that they have heard what you are saying without necessarily implying any agreement.

Wherever You Do Business

While pursuing global business contacts and opportunities can be a positive step forward for your business, you need to be prepared for the differences in attitude which may be necessary in order to integrate with a new culture. However, as long as you’re prepared to do your research first you can make the process as positive as possible and emerge from the boardroom with a new associate or client. Never assume that everyone does things the same way that you do, be flexible and courteous and you’re far more likely to succeed in your overseas ventures.

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