One of the most gratifying aspects of a business trip is marveling at our global diversity. Taking in different cultures, customs, and traditions is one of the many perks of traveling for business. However, in the professional world, the way that you behave and the cultural sensitivity that you show can actually play a huge part in the success or failure of your endeavor.
Business travelers need to educate themselves on the business etiquette of any foreign country they’re visiting. Just imagine what a shame it would be to have all your hard work on a client relationship turn sour because you’ve inadvertently offended them due to cultural differences without realizing it.
So, we did the work for you. We took a look at some of the typical practices in business etiquette around the world, so you don’t have to. Here’s are a few of our top international business etiquette tips for each business travel destination.
Body language is as important as verbal communication in Brazil. Brazilians are very familiar people and often prefer doing business with someone they have developed a personal relationship with. Meetings often run longer than planned because they like to engage in small talk—but don’t underestimate the importance of staying for this portion of the meeting. Connecting outside of the professional realm can be just as valuable as what you discuss in the conference room.
As an officially bilingual country, in Canada, there’s a certain expectation that you will be able to at least exchange basic pleasantries in French. Francophones have a tendency to speak in more direct terms than Anglophones, so take that into account. It’s important to shake hands with everyone both before and after your meeting. If you’re in Quebec, don’t forget to use the appropriate academic titles. Stay away from overly personal topics of conversation, as Canadians prefer to keep their personal and professional lives separate.
Although you might not expect it, bonding with your clients or colleagues on a personal level is really important in China. Chinese businesspeople will often take quite a while to get to know their associates before digging into the matter at hand. Always be punctual and bring business cards to share with everyone. Interestingly, it’s considered more polite to present and receive cards with both hands. The dress code in China is slightly stricter than you may think. Men should wear colored, more conservative suits than in Europe. Women should avoid heels and wearing tops with a low neckline.
France is the home of etiquette and table manners, so don’t forget yours at home. If you’re heading to France for a business meeting, expect some kind of lunch or dinner to go along with it. Establishing a personal connection there is very important as well, but do your best to avoid hyperbole as the French don’t tend to appreciate exaggerations. They’ll really enjoy it if you try to say a few words in French, and apologize for not speaking their beautiful language better. You’re also in the promised land of fashion, so show that you care through your clothes.
Germany is one of the more “proper” or “ceremonious” countries in Europe when it comes to formal business encounters. Speak in clear, direct terms—you can be sure your German counterparts won’t sugarcoat anything. Being late is considered very rude and disrespectful, so make sure you’re punctual. Keep the relationship professional and formal, and stay away from jokes during meetings. The traditional greeting in Germany is a firm handshake regardless of age or gender. You will likely be instructed where to sit, so don’t jump the gun.
Saying “no” in India is considered quite rude. If you don’t agree with something being said, think about other ways you can work around it like “we’ll see”, or “possibly”, or “perhaps at a later stage”. Ironically, it’s part of the protocol to say “no” to their first offer of coffee or tea! You will be offered it several times, so feel free to play the game and reject it in modesty the first time around. Remember that people in India don’t tend to eat beef, so do your best to avoid ordering it yourself. Don’t be surprised if your Indian colleagues or clients are late. Even if they are, you should do your best to be on time.
When in Italy, remember where you are. Italians are famous for their sense of style, so wearing a well-tailored suit, a sleek dress, and a good pair of leather shoes can leave a lasting first impression. It’s difficult to change an Italian’s impression of you once they’ve made up their minds, so your first meeting matters more than you think. Wait for one of them to call you by your first name—don’t be the first to do so. Stick with the more formal greetings initially, and always pay special attention to your elders. Expect to be wined and dined as there’s a proud culinary tradition across the whole country.
Etiquette and manners are very different in Japan than they are in the West. Bowing is considered the most polite form of greeting, whereas handshakes are not quite as common. Follow suit with what your Japanese hosts are doing. The word “no” in Japan is considered impolite, just like in India. Think of different ways to digress your opinion from your Japanese colleague or client. You’ll notice that the most senior team members speak the most in meetings, while more junior employees tend to keep quiet out of respect. It’s also customary to present a wrapped gift upon arrival as a token of appreciation.
There is an interesting tradition in Mexico to refer to people by their academic titles, such as “ingeniero/a” or “licenciado/a”. It’s a sign of respect to their accomplishments. If you don’t know what their title is (or if they don’t have one), address them as “señor/a/ita” followed by their surname. Remember that like in most Spanish-speaking countries, Mexicans keep both their paternal and maternal family names. However, you usually only refer to them by their first surname. Don’t be surprised by a lot of friendly questions about your home, your family, and your personal background. Mexicans are very friendly people and will often want to understand who they’re getting into business with.
Doing business with Russians can be a bit of a tricky business if you’re not used to it. They tend to have a fairly assertive negotiating style, and arriving at a compromise can often be seen as a sign of weakness. Don’t misinterpret this as rudeness, it’s more about giving no quarter in their ambition to achieve the best results. Always back what you’re saying with confidence, researched points, and a well-constructed argument. Keep the relationship formal and civil, unless your Russian colleague initiates a more friendly conversation.
When in Singapore for business, you can certainly expect a good time. Singapore is famous for corporate entertaining, so don’t be surprised if you’re taken to multiple lunches and dinners with different stakeholders. Body language matters very much in Singapore, so be mindful of your facial expressions, hand gestures, and general demeanor. Remember that Singapore can get quite warm and humid, so make sure you have some formal clothes in cooler fabrics.
If you're a business professional traveling to South Africa, it's important to remember that meetings can be quite informal. Punctuality still matters a great deal, but do take into account that you'll need extra time before and after the meeting to chat with the people you meeting on friendlier terms. Establishing a closer connection is important in building a successful business relationship in South Africa. It's commonplace to exchange business cards and even gifts from time to time.
When traveling to Spain for business, always remember to make appointments with everyone you need to see well in advance and reconfirm them a few days prior. Expect to be wined and dined at a business lunch, and don't think that the whole point of the meeting is to discuss business. It's also to get to know each other and build a strong rapport that will last for as long as you work together. The Spanish are very creative and will always offer interesting solutions to the topics at hand, but don't necessarily always expect them to stick to the planned meeting agenda. Do your best to say a few words in Spanish—a little can go a long way!
Time is highly valued in business meetings in the UK. It's important to always arrive on time, stick to the agreed schedule, and if possible arrive a few minutes early. Most meetings will have specific objectives to be reached, and will likely end with an informal chat on time. A firm handshake (but not too firm!) will leave a good first impression, and always call people by the name they've introduced themselves to you as. If they've said "Mrs. Smith", then don't call your colleague or client "Maggie". You'll notice that there's likely to be tea or coffee available at most meetings, and it's part of the business culture in the UK to share a cup over a nice conversation.
Americans are known to work harder than many industrialized nations, with fewer vacation days and longer working hours. That basically means that they're usually "on call". Conversely, the environment in most US-offices tends to be friendlier and less formal than in their European counterparts. People often call each other by their first names, smile a lot, and are often very approachable. When going to a business meeting in the US, don't forget that their in spite of their friendly demeanor, they're very much a "no-contact" culture. Stick with a handshake and make sure to give them plenty of personal space. There tends to be a very clear agenda for business meetings that you should stick to, and be prepared for a direct and honest approach from your American colleagues or clients.