Foreign Business Etiquette: Think Global, Act Local


As businesses continue to expand globally, it becomes imperative to conduct oneself in line with the customs of different countries.  American business men and women are sometimes blamed for committing blunders in etiquette when traveling abroad. In business transactions, this could mean the difference between a successful deal and a wasted trip. Even President Obama was oblivious to foreign customs when he gave former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown a set of DVD’s, an action that resulted in a heyday for the British media.  We thought it would be fun to share ten of the most unique business etiquette practices around the world, so you’re never caught unaware, no matter where you travel.

1. Using the left hand to greet or hand someone an object in the Middle East is considered offensive. The left hand is usually reserved for hygienic purposes and considered unclean so one should always be alert to use the right hand exclusively to shake hands or eat.

2. Gift giving is often customary in many countries but think twice before giving a Japanese person a knife or any other sharp objects. Sharp objects are a metaphor for severing ties in Japan, something you don’t want your business relationship to end up being.

3. Never joke around in a business meeting with Germans. While it may be the norm to break the ice with a joke here in America, joking around, especially in the initial stages of negotiations, can signify that you aren’t taking business seriously.

4. Sick or having allergies during a business trip to China? Avoid blowing your nose in public, especially at the dinner table. Using a handkerchief is considered impolite as well, so plan on disposable tissue or quick runs to the bathroom.

5. While we generally recommend being friendly to strangers, being overly friendly in France is an unnecessary gesture. Private and work lives are always separate so don’t ask too many personal questions during a business meeting.

6. Giving someone the “ok” sign is the equivalent of giving someone the finger in Brazil.  President Nixon made this mistake in the 1950’s, twice, when he “ok’d” the entire nation on camera and later in front of the Brazilian prime minister.

7. Expect passion when dealing with Russians. Negotiations can get heated and Russians may throw tantrums or even walk out of the room. Though this is sometimes used as a form of coercion, it’s generally a form of passion most Americans simply aren’t used to seeing.

8. Don’t ask your business contacts to meet you for dinner in Spain at 7pm. Restaurants usually don’t open until 9pm and dinners last well past midnight.

9. Not that you’d be walking around bare-footed while conducting business in Egypt, but showing the soles of the feet while sitting down is considered a major insult to an Egyptian.  Make sure both feet are firm on the ground and avoid crossing your legs when dealing with Egyptians.

10. If you find yourself having to do business with the Maori people, don’t be surprised if you have to “rub noses”– literally. Rubbing noses is considered a common greeting in parts of New Zealand so don’t be offended if your new business partner wants to get up close and personal.

So whether you’re doing business in London or Zimbabwe, it’s always a good idea to study a country’s customs and cultures.  A couple of useful websites that can teach you the basics of foreign business etiquette are Kwintessential and Cyborlink


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