Global commerce is making the world smaller. Doing business with international vendors and clients — once the province of a select few — is an increasingly common affair among professionals at all levels. But American business etiquette is far from the norm abroad. There is a dizzying array of rules and customs in play when doing business internationally, and even the most subtle variation in manners can have grave consequences when it comes to landing that big contract.
International Business Etiquette
So whether you’re jetting off to Hong Kong or just doing a video chat with a supplier in Berlin, it pays to be aware of differences in regional and cultural business etiquette.
There are a few rules that should be observed no matter where you travel.
- When dressing, err on the side of caution and maintain a conservative appearance.
- Always be punctual, and never appear to be impatient or in a rush. Not every culture is as sensitive to time as Americans, and the schedules of international businesspeople may be much more fluid than your own.
- Lastly, never assume that you know who’s in charge in an international meeting. If your itinerary doesn’t inform you ahead of time, listen and observe. See who the other meeting participants defer to before making a judgement.
With that in mind, here are some must-know regional variations on business etiquette.
Do: Always carry business cards, and observe Japanese business card etiquette carefully at all times. It’s a complex ritual: receive the card with both hands, study it for an appropriate amount of time, and pocket it with a “thank you.” It’s also important to smile and appear interested throughout the proceeding. Copious note taking is also seen as a sign of great interest.
Don’t: Never go in for the handshake. Japanese businesspeople rarely shake hands. Instead, a light bow is appropriate. Avoid physical contact if at all possible, so don’t pat anyone on the shoulder or touch someone’s arm while you’re talking. And never write on the business cards!
Do: Germans take time very seriously, so be punctual, if not early. Refer to everyone in attendance by their title and surname, unless invited to do otherwise. Maintain plenty of physical distance between you and your German counterparts.
Don’t: Germans business etiquette typically requires a firm separation of business and personal matters, so don’t delve into personal matters. Keep the conversation focused on the matter at hand. Also, don’t be vague or circumspect when speaking or presenting. It’s seen as a waste of time and may make you seem unsure or incapable.
Do: In business etiquette, India can seem like Germany’s polar opposite. Indians value interpersonal relationships during the business process, and it’s considered rude to jump right into business matters. Make small talk. Get to know your hosts, and graciously accept whatever refreshment is offered.
Don’t: Indian businesspeople often take a very flexible view of appointments. Don’t be surprised if your meeting partners show up late, and don’t react negatively when they do. Business in India can be conducted very slowly, so don’t seem impatient. Also, men should avoid touching women in public and vice versa.
Do: Dressing the part is crucial here; presenting a polished, well-groomed appearance is seen as an assertion of self-confidence and a sign of respect for your hosts. Women from the United States may be taken aback by simple displays of gallantry by Latin American men. Men may open doors, pull chairs, and hail cabs for women; these are customary acts of politeness, not flirtatious advances. Similarly, men from the U.S. may find themselves expected to perform similar duties for the women in Latin American business situations.
Don’t: The Latin American concept of personal space can be fluid and quite small. Should you find your conversation partner standing just a little too close, or even with a hand on your elbow or shoulder, avoid backing away. Doing so can be seen as insulting. Standing with your back to someone, however briefly, is equally discourteous.
Behind each of these tips is a vast complex of manners and customs, so don’t stop here. When business takes you abroad, research is imperative. Read up on dining etiquette, male-female interaction, proper titles and terms of address, and customary attire. No matter where you go, there’s no greater faux pas than being unprepared.
Have you traveled abroad for a business trip? What are some key takeaways you can share that will prepare someone else on their travels overseas?