International business etiquette can be challenging. It changes shape, shifting as you cross borders, taking new forms as you travel across time zones. How you take your tea, how you wear your suit — they send different signals in Osaka than they do in Chennai. So when it comes to making a great impression, your good intentions will only take you so far.
Many of the business etiquette rules of your home country likely come as second nature to you. You know them because you grew up watching them on television, seeing them performed by the adults around you, or learning them first-hand from a parent or grandparent. You can’t rely on your intuition and dashing good looks alone to navigate the waters of international business. You need to do your research and be willing to unlearn some of your hard-wired cultural beliefs.
So before your stamp your passport, take some time to brush up on these unique rules of international business etiquette:
International Business Etiquette in China
- The Rights of the Round Table. Is your business meeting in China taking place around a large round table? If so, don’t pick just any seat. The seat directly facing the main door is reserved for the highest-ranking member of the hosting group. The highest-ranked member of the “away team” should sit directly to that person’s right. Not sure where to sit? Wait for others to choose their places first.
- The Insistent Gift Horse. Although it’s not mandatory, bringing a gift to the host of your first Chinese meeting never hurts. Don’t get discouraged if your hosts decline. It’s not your giftwrap, it’s just professional business etiquette. It’s Chinese custom to only accept gifts after you’ve declined them up to three times. Don’t give up, and include handwritten cards for an added touch.
- Exit Etiquette. This rule of professional etiquette is fairly simple — when attending a business meeting in China, allow your hosts to leave the room first. If you're seated close to the door and this feels awkward to you, hold the door open for your hosts as they exit.
- Decision Delays. In China, you may not make a final decision after sitting in a meeting for three hours. Don’t push it. Decisions are often made after meetings, when everyone’s had time to review the facts.
International Business Etiquette in Belgium
- Kiss Metrics. In Belgium, business relationships are sealed with a kiss. Not on the mouth, of course, but given in “air kiss” style upon greeting. International business etiquette calls for three kisses, given on the right, left and right cheeks in that order.
International Business Etiquette in Japan
- The Sleeping Dragon. Picture this: you’re in a business meeting in Tokyo. The CEO closes his eyes and leans back in his chair. He stays that way throughout an entire presentation. What’s his problem, you think? The truth is, he’s not being rude — he’s showing his presentation leader that he trusts her to handle the meeting. Do NOT make any jokes about this or try to “wake him.” Both will be seen as incredibly rude.
- Serious Business Cards. Japanese professionals take business cards almost as seriously as Patrick Bateman. Make sure your business cards are translated into Japanese on one side. Use both hands to pass them out with the Japanese side facing up, and accept others’ cards with both hands as well. Don’t toy with cards or write on them — as soon as you receive them, place them in a designated section of your briefcase or add them to a separate business card holder.
- Self-Serving. When sharing a pot of tea or pitcher of beer, never pour your own drink. Wait for others to refill your glass — and don’t forget to return the favor!
- Wrap It Up. As in China, Japan is a great place to bring a small gift to a first meeting. But make sure you wrap it first! Showing off an expensive gift is considered tacky. A small token that represents your brand or hometown is much more appropriate — it really is the thought that counts!
International Business Etiquette in Russia
- The Test of Time. Business rules in Russia dictate that foreign guests should arrive early or on-time to meetings. Their Russian hosts, however, may often arrive late. This isn’t a mistake — it’s a tactical move used to measure patience. The best way to handle it is to not expect an apology and take the tardiness in stride.
International Business Etiquette in Brazil
- Stand and Deliver. Emails and phone calls are fine for everyday conversations, but if you’re delivering news of a big decision, professional etiquette dictates that you do so in person. Make sure you schedule your meeting in advance — two weeks or more if possible.
- Close Encounters. Your Brazilian business contacts will likely make a lot of contact of their own. They may touch your shoulder or handle your watch as they compliment it. Although you may be used to a wider perimeter of personal space, don’t back away. Retain eye contact and stay engaged or risk coming across as cold and rude.
- Hugs and Kisses. Though it might seem informal in the U.S., in Brazil, it’s more common to say “hugs” at the end of an email than it is to say “sincerely.” In Portuguese, the word is spelled "Abraços.”
- Hands Off. During a dinner meeting, rely on your knife and fork — even if pizza’s on the menu. In Brazil, it’s considered a violation of business etiquette to eat with your hands.
International Business Etiquette in Thailand
- King and Country. Have a meeting to discuss brand marketing solutions in Bangkok? Keep your negativity in-check. While many U.S. citizens love to discuss things like politics with a healthy degree of sarcasm and satire, this is bad idea in Thailand. Anything seen as an insult to Thai royalty or the country itself will be taken personally by your hosts. Making this error could cost you a business deal or the entire business relationship.
International Business Etiquette in the United Arab Emirates
- Lude Lefties. Are you left-handed? You may have a hard time building business relationships in the UAE. Some Emirati consider the left hand to be “unclean” as it is used for less sanitary daily tasks. So if you’re attending your first meeting at the Burj Khalifa, don’t expect an enthusiastic handshake if you extend your left hand.
- A Dry Heat. The desert climate of cities like Dubai can be dry in more ways than one. There, liquor laws are different, and while alcohol is usually served in hotels, it may not be served in many restaurants. If your business colleagues are Muslim, they may not drink, so if no one else at the table has ordered a glass of wine, it’s more polite for you not to be the first.
International Business Etiquette in India
- Where’s the Beef? The most common religion in India is Hinduism. Hindus believe cattle are sacred, and as a result, they don’t eat beef. You don’t necessarily have to adopt a strict vegetarian diet during your stay in Mumbai, but it’s best not to order a sizzling steak.
- Say No to No. Will you export the same product for half the price? Will you accept 30% less in payment for the same service? Some business questions are easy to say no to, but how you phrase your no matters. In India, simply saying, “no” is considered blunt and rude. Instead, try to “let them down gently” instead. When making demands or denying requests, try phrases like, “That’s a great idea, but I’m not sure if it will work out. Might we try this idea instead?”
International Business Etiquette in Spain
- Moving Deadlines. In Spain, deadlines are considered more of a suggestion than a definitive date. If you’re working on business projects with Spanish counterparts, you may need to factor a few extra days into your timeline.
International Business Etiquette in Finland
- Steam Signals. When was the last time your boss held a meeting in his sauna? Sadly, in the U.S. steam rooms aren’t used too often. In Finland, they’re huge. So while you may not feel like breaking a sweat with a CEO in Helsinki, never turn down a sauna invite — it’s a sign the business relationship is going well!
International Business Etiquette in the United Kingdom
- On The Nose. Don’t worry — you didn’t get anything on your face during morning tea. Your new business contacts are tapping their noses for another reason. In the U.K., tapping your nose can signify that the manners about to be discussed are confidential. Keep these matters to yourself or risk ruining your business relationship.
- The Present Price. In England, gift-giving isn’t a given. If you do decide to offer a present to your English hosts, British business etiquette experts recommend choosing one that’s, “not expensive enough to be considered a bribe or so inexpensive as to be considered an insult.”
International Business Etiquette in Germany
- Hot Under the Collar. Did someone just crank up the heat in your Munich office? Resist the urge to remove your suit jacket. Taking off your jacket in a business meeting violates German business rules — it’s considered informal and inappropriate.
- Joke’s on You. Sometimes it’s almost physically painful to hold in a great pun — but in Germany it’s best to keep your zingers to yourself. In a casual setting, feel free to be your hilarious self, but if you want to be taken seriously, tone down the jokes during business meetings in Germany.
- Age Before Beauty. Many business rules exist to show respect — this is definitely one of them. When entering a boardroom in Germany, step aside and let older professionals enter first. It’s a simple gesture that definitely sets the right tone.
International Business Etiquette in France
- Mind Your Misters. When addressing new business associates in France, always apply the prefix of “Monsieur” or “Madame” to their names. It may seem too formal to you, but it’s common practice in France.
- Signs and Signals. The same hand gesture can mean very different things in two different countries. Be careful using the “okay” hand gesture that forms a circle with the thumb and index finger. In France, this gesture means “zero” or “nothing.” This is definitely not the gesture you want to use to compliment the office, attire or work of your French hosts.
International Business Etiquette in South Africa
- Holidays on Hold. If you’re planning a business trip to South Africa, don’t schedule it from mid-December to the middle of January. Also avoid major religious holidays. Most business dealings are put on hold during this time and trying to interrupt holy days and family time is considered terrible business etiquette.
International Business Etiquette in Argentina
- Contractual Obligations. Take your time before you sign on the dotted line — your hosts definitely will! In Argentina, contracts are usually long, detailed and negotiated for an extended period of time. Very specific items within a contract may also be argued and adjusted. Show patience during these negotiations and don’t be afraid to use the process to your advantage!
At the end of the day, international business etiquette is really about being a respectful and gracious guest. If you observe proper business etiquette in your home office, you already know the basics of building professional relationships — whether you’re doing it in New York or New Dehli. If you’re travelling out of the country and aren’t familiar with local etiquette, it’s wise to spend a bit of time making sure you understand the way your hosts prefer to do business.
Keep these international business guidelines in mind, but don’t agonize over perfecting every little detail. Your hosts understand that you come from a culture with traditions of its own, and making an effort to respect the practices of the country you’re in goes a long way. Even with all the preparation in the world, your international dealings can bring with them miscommunications and awkward moments. Look at these as learning opportunities and your reputation and network will only continue to grow. Because as the Kenyan proverb goes, “Traveling is learning.”