Business Etiquettes for the International Business Traveller (50+ Tips)

You have your presentation ready; your through with packing, the documents are ready to go – but are you really prepared for this international trip?

With businesses globalizing and expanding across international borders, more and more business travelers like you are making a trip away from their home country. Stepping into a new culture with different customs and unfamiliar cultural values can be overwhelming.

Keeping track of each culture’s perception of acceptable behavior can be challenging. In this global era, cultural sensitivity has the potential to make or break your business relationships.

Here are a few instances of different cultural etiquettes that could land you in murky waters if you don’t pay attention:

  • Asking personal questions during a business meeting is frowned upon in Switzerland. In Latin American countries, it is considered rude if you don’t build a personal rapport first.
  • In Japan, visitors are expected to bring small token gifts as a sign of respect. In India giving gifts is acceptable only after building a close relationship. Meanwhile in the United States gifts could be misinterpreted as a bribe.
  • In the United Kingdom, people like to have personal space, so don’t stand too close. Whereas in Brazil, standing close is a sign of trust and standing afar may be seen as a sign of untrustworthiness.

We know these instances can crack even the best of us.

But, fret not! We created a list of commonly visited countries and the etiquette they follow.

Before stepping into your next meeting, here are a few pointers that will help you win the meeting, and build strong business connections, no matter where you are:

Europe

United Kingdom

  • Punctuality is highly valued. You are expected to be on time, or early.
  • Make a conscious effort to give people more personal space.
  • Firm handshakes are acceptable, any physical contact beyond that is reserved for family and close friends.
  • Small talk and personal questions are not appreciated. Keep meetings brief and on-point.
  • Tapping one’s nose is an indicator of the beginning of a confidential conversation. Look out for this gesture during business meetings.

France

  • A delay of up to 10 minutes is acceptable. Punctuality is treated casually.
  • If you don’t have time to learn French before doing business there, learn a few phrases or greetings. This serves as a show of good faith.
  • Expect long business lunches. Lunch can last up to 2 hours.
  • Being the fashion capital of the world, be prepared to see well-tailored fashionable yet formal attires for both men and women. Time to step up your style game!

Finland

  • Punctuality is valued but is not considered to impact the business deal.
  • There is minimal to no small talk or personal conversations.
  • Enjoying a relaxing sauna is an honored tradition. Being invited to a Sauna meeting is considered a sign of hospitality and a positive gesture.

Germany

  • Punctuality is essential. Tardiness is looked down upon, and apologies accompany even a delay of a couple of minutes.
  • In business meetings, address everyone using Mr./Ms./Mrs unless specifically instructed otherwise.
  • Business events are very structured and considered as serious engagements.
  • Jokes are not appreciated in a business context.
  • This is the most obvious: avoid any mention related to World War II and Nazi Germany.

Italy

  • Punctuality is not a priority.
  • Business is often personal and relationship driven. Spend a significant amount of time getting to know your Italian business partners and developing a relationship.

Belgium

  • While strangers will shake hands at first, Belgium business professionals greet each other with three air kisses once a relationship has been established.
  • When greeting a Belgian businessperson, a handshake is appropriate for both men and women. Cheek kissing is reserved for friends and usually doesn’t take place between men.
  • Small talk is not appreciated.
  • Meetings are expected to be brief, to the point and highly structured.
    Tip – Prepare a detailed time-bound agenda for the meeting to win over your Belgian counterparts.

Switzerland

  • Businesses in Switzerland are known for their punctuality. Arriving late to a meeting or being unprepared come across as being disrespectful and will be judged negatively.
  • Stick to the agenda.
  • Small talk is not appreciated.
  • It’s best to shake hands with associates while maintaining eye contact. One should address colleagues using their title and last name until instructed otherwise.
  • Hierarchy is important, and people receive respect based on their rank, education, and achievements.

Asia

China

  • Contrary to popular belief, bowing is reserved for special ceremonies, and a nod will suffice in business settings.
  • Drinks or food items offered by the host should not be refused. It’s considered rude to say that you’re “full.”
  • The number “4” is considered unlucky.
  • The color red is considered auspicious.
  • Giving gifts is an acceptable social practice. Chinese business folks appreciate presents. The customary tradition is that gifts are refused up to three times before being accepted. It is important to continue offering your present until it’s accepted.You will be expected to go through the same routine if you are offered a gift.
    Tip: Bring extra gifts.
  • Final decisions are not made during the meeting, but after the meeting once the entire group has a chance to collectively make a decision.
  • Senior associates are shown respect by avoiding eye contact and showing deference at meetings.

India

  • It’s not considered rude to be late. Meetings generally start a little later than scheduled.
  • It is customary to use your right hand to hand over anything – documents, cheques, food, etc.
  • Even business contacts maintain a friendly personal relationship. It may be considered rude to jump into business right away. Expect small talk and general questions about your family and journey.
  • Tea, coffee or water are commonly offered at meetings. It is considered rude to refuse any form of refreshments, so you are expected to choose one of them.
  • Saying a direct “no” is considered rude. Subtleties are appreciated.

Japan

  • Silence during meetings indicates a period of reflection. Don’t interrupt or feel the need to speak and fill the silence.
  • Business cards are still widely exchanged. Print in both English and Japanese.
  • Punctuality is essential. Apologize profusely and repeatedly, if late.
  • Business attire is formal, like a suit and tie or a dress.
  • Like in China, you are expected to bring small low-value gifts for your hosts. Make sure to give gifts to everyone present, as it’s considered rude to leave anyone out.
  • Greetings involve a bow of the head followed by a handshake.
  • Like in India, the word, “no” can be considered impolite and must be avoided.
  • When presenting your card, pass it out with both hands, with the Japanese side facing up.
  • Decisions are seldom made in the actual meeting. Decisions usually take place after the meeting ends, after the entire group has a chance to deliberate.

Singapore

  • Business attire is relatively casual, mostly to stay comfortable in the humid weather.
  • A strict division is maintained between personal and business meetings. Expect meeting invitations to be declined if they are after hours.
  • Communication is often indirect and non-confrontational. Verbal agreements may not result in formal agreements.
  • Don’t give gifts. Gifts may be misconstrued as bribery, especially when doing business with government officials.
  • Flattery or boasting is seen with suspicion, and prolonged eye contact can seem aggressive.
    Tip: Be calm, humble, understated and soft-spoken to earn trust among your Singaporean counterparts.

South America

  • It’s considered rude to jump right into business conversations. Personal relationships are important. Spending time to establish a rapport. Once a bond is established, steering the conversation toward business is the best approach.
  • Punctuality is not strictly enforced. At the business level, it’s acceptable to be up to 10 minutes late. Add reasonable margins in your itinerary for each appointment. Meetings usually don’t have an end time and tend to run long.
  • In business meetings, it is customary to stand close and use lots of physical contact while talking. Closeness is believed to encourage trust, and trust inspires long-term relationships.
  • Expect a higher degree of informality, in general.

Oceania

Australia and New Zealand

  • Tardiness is seen as a symptom of flakiness or indifference. Be on time.
  • Greeting associates with a handshake are common. 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 participation in “rounds” where they’ll be expected to buy drinks for everyone when it’s their turn.
  • Direct communication is valued far more highly than diplomacy.

North America

United States of America

  • Maintaining a degree of informality while still being well-mannered will help you build a better rapport with your US counterparts.
  • Punctuality is appreciated.
  • Business associates typically greet each other with a handshake.
  • Referring to people by their first names is the norm.
  • Direct, to the point communication, is highly appreciated.

Canada

  • Be on time. Meetings are well-organized and adhere to time schedules.
  • Being too early is also considered impolite, as it is seen to disrespect/disrupt the host’s schedule.
  • Personal questions may be acceptable after a few meetings but not at first.
  • Gifts are not generally expected and are seen as inappropriate.
  • Canadians appreciate politeness and expect others to adhere to the correct protocols of a given situation.

General rules

There is no universally valid set of business etiquette rules. Every culture in the world has developed its own unwritten set of rules. To avoid offending your international counterparts and to stay respectful, we recommend following some basic guidelines:

  • Be punctual. Not all cultures value punctuality, but regardless of whether you are the host or a meeting attendee, it’s always good to be on time.
  • In certain regions, your dinner order can be offensive. If you are unsure about local practices, avoid pork and beef.
  • In countries where Islam is prevalent, it is advised to take prayer timings into consideration. Scheduling meetings that overlap with prayer timings are often seen as a sign of ignorance or disrespect.
  • Avoid hand-gestures entirely to avoid confusion. Different cultures associate different meanings to hand-gestures.
  • Following the organization’s hierarchy is ae safe approach to initial greetings and the following meeting proceedings.
  • A conservative formal dress-code and mostly dark colors are the globally accepted approach to formal clothing.
  • As a general rule, don’t ask personal questions, such as those related to one’s religion, job or political party
  • When in doubt,  follow the hosts. They can be your guide on the dos and donts of the region.

Have any more suggestions or travel stories from any of these countries? Please share them with us in the comment section below!

Now, win the world!

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