- International business customs make up the rules and behaviors that should guide your interactions with potential clients in other countries.
- There’s etiquette surrounding lateness, handshake firmness, how long you’ll need to spend getting to know someone before diving into business, and much more.
- You should research a country’s customs before doing business there; get tips from people you know who live there or have done business there.
- This article is for business owners and professionals interested in pursuing international business opportunities while staying respectful and courteous.
Sometimes business can bring you out of your home country. You may find new opportunities overseas, and ambitious entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid of growing beyond their borders. However, conducting business with people from other cultures means being aware of ways in which they do things differently.
While effective communication is one component to succeeding internationally, adapting to local protocol and etiquette is also essential. Seemingly small things, like how you accept a business card or what you order for lunch, can make or break a business relationship. Below is everything you should know.
What are international business customs?
International business customs are gestures, behaviors or communication rules people follow in other countries. For example, while Americans often greet each other with handshakes during business meetings, people in other countries may greet each other with air kisses. Other countries might use handshakes but require a less firm grip.
17 international business customs you should know
Some international customs are more unusual than others. Here are 17 unique international business customs.
It’s common for South Koreans to expect their guests to engage in noraebang, or karaoke. If you join your Korean colleagues for dinner, you might find yourself at a karaoke establishment, and you’ll be expected to sing.
Don’t worry if you’re not a great singer, though. These karaoke establishments generally have private rooms, and you’ll be performing in front of your group only. Koreans will also often skip songs after the first verse and chorus to get through more karaoke during their allotted time.
If you don’t speak French, that’s OK, but you are expected to issue an apology for your lack of fluency before engaging in further conversation. If you don’t have time to learn French before doing business in France, learning a few phrases or greetings can serve as a show of good faith.
Also, be prepared for lengthy meals in France. Lunch can last up to two hours.
Tip: To reduce business travel stress when attending meetings overseas, get enough sleep, clarify what’s expected of you, and take some downtime to enjoy the new location.
Germans often respect direct communication and err on the side of being blunt in business dealings. The more straightforward you are, the better when in Germany. It’s also wise to remain serious and devoid of humor, as jokes are not appreciated in a business context.
Don’t expect to get down to brass tacks with Italians. In Italy, business is often personal and involves building and maintaining relationships. With this relationship-driven approach, expect to spend a significant amount of time getting to know your Italian business partners and developing a relationship.
If you relax and put business on the back burner, focusing your efforts on forming a foundation based on trust and friendly communication, you’ll find more success in Italy than a hard-driving, all-business, all-the-time approach.
Set your alarm early when doing business in Australia. Punctuality is crucial when meeting to discuss business. If you’re not going to be precisely on time, you should arrive a bit early. Otherwise, you could be perceived as rude or unorganized by your hosts.
Don’t lose a deal because you were five minutes late. While that might be acceptable in the U.S., it will certainly be noticed when you’re Down Under.
Did you know?: Employees are late for various reasons, including traffic, weather, oversleeping, and simple procrastination.
Being on time for a business meeting in Russia is of the utmost importance. At least for one party, that is. While Americans are expected to arrive not a second after the meeting’s scheduled start time, Russians may show up as late as they desire and are unapologetic about it. The move is designed to test the patience of their U.S. counterparts.
Americans working in China had better have a gift ready when they show up for a business meeting. However, don’t expect it to be eagerly accepted. In China, the customary tradition is that gifts are refused up to three times before being accepted. It is essential to continue offering your present until it is finally taken.
While the business card has declined in importance in the U.S., that is far from the case in Japan. When doing business with the Japanese, Americans should be armed with stacks of their business cards printed in both English and Japanese.
The business card is held in very high regard in Japan. When presenting your card, it is critical to pass it out with both hands, with the Japanese side facing up. When receiving a business card, Americans should accept it with both hands while thanking the giver. In addition, the business card should never be written on or played with during the meeting, as both are signs of disrespect.
Tip: To organize and manage the business cards you collect, invest in one of the best business card scanners that can import customer and client data into customer relationship management (CRM) software.
Expect a complete invasion of personal space if doing business in Brazil. While it could be considered impolite in the U.S., standing extremely close and using lots of physical contact while talking in Brazil is customary.
The typical reaction might be to back away, but those who do risk losing out on a potential business relationship since backing away is considered disrespectful.
United Arab Emirates
Left-handers may have some trouble doing business in the United Arab Emirates. In Middle Eastern countries, the left hand is considered unclean and used strictly for bodily hygiene. It is crucial to eat, shake hands and pass documents with the right hand only. Using the left hand to do any of those activities is a serious insult.
When at a business dinner in India, Americans should be careful what they order. During dinner, those looking to make a good impression should refrain from digging into a juicy steak or hamburger. Since the cow is considered a sacred animal in India, some may consider it a sign of disrespect to order any beef dish – or wear leather – during lunch or dinner.
While deadlines are usually considered firm dates in the U.S., the same can’t be said in Spain. In Spain, deadlines are viewed more as a guideline. If someone misses a deadline, it’s not generally frowned upon. Americans shouldn’t be insulted by missed deadlines; instead, they should schedule potential delays into timelines.
While Americans are used to doing business in plenty of locations outside the office – such as restaurants and golf courses – they probably aren’t as comfortable holding a meeting in a sauna.
In Finland, enjoying a relaxing sauna is an honored tradition. To help build the relationship, Americans shouldn’t decline the invite, as such an invitation is considered a sign of hospitality, showing the meeting is headed in a positive direction.
Did you know?: One Burger King location in Helsinki has a sauna with servers, food and drinks. Business meetings are common in this sauna.
Be prepared to spend some time just saying hello and goodbye when in business meetings in Belgium. While a handshake will suffice as a greeting in the U.S., the Belgians prefer a kiss – or an “air kiss,” to be more precise.
While strangers will shake hands at first, Belgium business professionals greet each other with three air kisses once a relationship has been established. Protocol calls for the kisses to be given on the right cheek, then the left cheek and back to the right cheek. Not giving the kisses – or not following the correct order when giving them – is considered disrespectful when dealing with Belgians.
When doing business with British professionals, Americans shouldn’t feel like a game of charades is breaking out when the British start tapping their noses. Rather than a fun game, the tapping indicates that what is about to be discussed is private and confidential. It is critical to look for that signal, or you risk sharing something the Brit had intended to keep secret from others.
In New Zealand, small talk before a business meeting is brief, and you should stick closely to the meeting agenda. Interruptions are frowned upon, and direct, clear communication with factual support is encouraged. Avoid being too friendly with new potential business connections, but feel free to be more relaxed and social once you’ve developed a relationship.
In Taiwan, business meetings typically start with small talk and go off course from the agenda, though you should avoid interrupting people. You’ll fare best if you leave the door open to any possibilities presented to you, even if you don’t fully believe in them. A “maybe” goes a long way compared to a “no,” which can end the deal.
You should also treat business cards precisely the same as in Japan. Additionally, during handshakes, women should offer their hands first, and men should lower their eyes.
Did you know?: The most effective words for business meetings in the U.S. are “yeah,” “give,” “start,” “meeting” and “discuss.”
How to learn about business customs not on this list
The 17 countries on this list are less than one-tenth of the world’s 195 countries. Surely, business opportunities exist for you somewhere among the many other nations, and you’ll need to understand how to manage customer relationships there.
No matter where you’re doing business, research the basics of business etiquette to avoid offending potential clients, vendors and partners. You can also ask someone you know who’s done business there or lived there. Go in prepared and you should be fine.
Max Freedman and Chad Brooks contributed to the writing and research in this article.