Walk into a business meeting in India with a ready handshake in one hand and a leather briefcase in the other, and you’ve already got off on the wrong foot. Shaking hands in India is commonplace, but cows are Hinduism’s sacred animal: using leather products is ill-advised.
It’s one of many examples of how subtle and complex international business etiquette can be. Cultures across the world have multitudinous and sometimes clashing expectations, so it’s vital to read up if you want to make a good impression. “A commonly made faux pas globally is assuming that, because people speak the same language, they also abide by the same cross-cultural customs that we do,” explains Ann Marie Sabath, an independent consultant and author of International Business Etiquette guides to Latin America, Europe, Asia & The Pacific Rim. “Most of the time, international courtesy is learned as a result of the sins of reprimand.”
Speak [a bit of] the language
The most overt of these cultural differences is language. International business may rely on translators, but making an effort to learn even a few words before meeting a client goes a long way. Research by the Journal of Rhetoric, Professional Communication, and Globalisation found that just attempting to speak a business associate’s language showed benevolence and helped establish trust.
Countries like France are particularly proud of their language; disregarding it is seen as disappointing at best. Something as simple as using the correct honourifics can have a big impact. This is especially true in hierarchical business cultures like Japan, where honourifics change based on interpersonal status.
If you are attempting to speak a foreign language, only use words you’re certain of. “Never assume that cognates mean what you think they do in your culture”, warns Ann Marie. The author explains it’s a hard-learned lesson: she once apologised for a Spanish faux pas with ‘estoy muy embarazada’ — not ‘I’m very embarrassed’ but ‘I’m very pregnant’.
Cultural idioms can also surprise you. In Thailand, a common greeting is ‘have you eaten’ instead of ‘how are you’, while in China, people will commonly ask ‘how much do you earn’ — best answered with a compliment to your company. Countries like India and Japan avoid using the word ‘no’ entirely and tend to equivocate with a politer ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’. Meanwhile, in Middle Eastern cultures, it’s worth being cautious of compliments; praising someone’s jacket or the office artwork may make them feel compelled to give it to you.
Timed to perfection
The phrase ‘time is money’ is well known for good reason. For a large number of countries, particularly across Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania, punctuality is equivalent to respect. Turning up on time (better yet, early) is key to making a good first impression in places like Australia, the UK, Germany and Norway. In other countries though, the focus shifts from punctuality to the person.
“In general, countries where people stand closer to each other tend to respect the person with whom they’re interacting over the clock,” explains Ann Marie. “There’s a saying in Spanish: ‘Time is like space’, and that means if I’m talking with you and I have a 12:15 meeting, I’m not going to worry about the meeting. What we’re talking about is much more important than the clock.”
In Brazil, for example, it’s incredibly common for meetings to overrun, but it would be rude to leave early. It’s an entirely opposite approach, one that’s hard for many to grapple with. How does someone from Berlin ever do business with someone in Brasilia without coming to untimely blows?
“Here’s the one and only rule: the client is always right,” states Ann Marie. “If you’re the client and you keep me waiting for two hours, I better get over it.” Freer time management isn’t necessarily inconsiderate — it’s simply a cultural difference.
The majority of countries are keen to do business over food. After all, breaking bread has always been a fast track to growing a relationship. Throw in gourmet cuisine, a late-night atmosphere and alcohol where appropriate, and it’s also one of the best parts of doing business. But a laid-back environment can lure you into a false sense of security, and opens up a whole new set of etiquette hurdles.
To start, there’s seating arrangements. In Japan, the seat of honour isn’t at the head of the table as most western cultures presume, but the furthest from the door — an affectation from shogun days, where juniors were seated closer to the entrance to protect the senior.
In both Japan and China, mastering chopsticks is important but it’s equally vital to know how to place them. Sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice is incredibly discomforting, as it echoes incense sticks at funerals. To their west in India, eating with your left hand is considered unclean.
How much one eats matters too: in Denmark, it’s considered wasteful to not finish your food, while in China, polishing off your plate can signal you weren’t given enough. As Ann Marie explains, etiquette often comes down to the little details: even the smallest cultural faux pas can fracture relationships. “I knew an Italian gentleman who was ready to hire a man as his Senior Vice President,” she says. “He took him to his favourite proper Italian restaurant where the mama was in the kitchen cooking. The Italian man recommended this meal, his guest accepted… but when they went to eat, the Anglo SVP cut his pasta. Cut his linguine. And he was not offered the job. It was such a faux pas for this Italian man.”
To give or not to give?
In many countries, gifts are an expected part of doing business, but it’s important to know what you’re doing. Presents should be thought out and considered in advance, with aspects such as where the gift originates, whether alcohol is appropriate, and even colour and number taken into account.
In Taiwan, odd numbers are considered unlucky, so gifts that come in pairs are far more appreciated. Naturally, dry countries like those in the Middle East won’t take kindly to alcoholic gifts, while some countries put a lot of value on your alcoholic choice — don’t gift wine in France unless you know what you’re doing.
While many businesses like to brand gifts with corporate logos, countries like France consider it somewhat tasteless. Their neighbour Italy can be quite extravagant with gifts, but countries such as Brazil could see expensive presents as an attempt to bribe. Gift-giving in Germany is often inappropriate, with some companies enforcing strict anti-corruption rules that make accepting them impossible.
If you’re stuck for appropriate gift ideas, you can always ask the hotel concierge for suggestions. Just make sure to wrap the present and always hand gifts and business cards over with two hands — inoffensive across the globe.
Focus on what matters
Ultimately, with such a mix, navigating etiquette from Asia to the Americas may seem impossible, but a small amount of studying will stand you in good stead. Some rules hold true across the world too, reassures Ann Marie. Recognise your own limitations — you won’t know everything — adapt to the culture, and consider the client’s perspective. “It’s all about the relationship,” she summarises simply. “Put the people first.”
1 - Aïdoud, A. et al. (2023). ‘High Prevalence of Geriatric Conditions Among Older Adults With Cardiovascular Disease’. Journal of the American Heart Association, Vol. 12(2).
2 - https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/ageing/articles/voicesofourageingpopulation/livinglongerlives#:~:text=The%20population%20of%20England%20and,the%20previous%20census%20in%202011