International Business Etiquette

There is no escaping the fact that we live in and do business on a rapidly shrinking planet! With the continued rise of the BRIC economies and many other emerging nations, businesses have never had more opportunities to tap into these markets. How we behave and how we are perceived by our prospective international trading partners can make or break a deal. You may have the best product or service in the world, but if you commit a cultural faux pas, it could cost you that next big deal.

So what is Etiquette?

Etiquette, or good manners, is an important part of our day to day lives. Whether we realize it or not we are always following our own rules of etiquette. Much of the time these are unwritten, for example holding the door open for someone, waiting in line in an orderly fashion or simply saying “please” or “thank you”. All are examples of etiquette; complex unwritten rules that reflect a culture’s values.

Awareness of etiquette accomplishes many things, but the most recognizable is that it shows respect and knowledge of another’s culture.  This in turn helps to build good interpersonal relationships and smooth the way for any future dealings. There is an old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, so don’t let your lack of cultural awareness and local etiquette hinder your opportunities.Business Etiquette

This can prove to be a minefield as the things you take for granted in your own culture may be radically different in other cultures. The examples below represent the tip of the iceberg, but they will give you some ideas of how very different things can be.

Yes or no?

In many Asian countries, people believe that ‘no’ is an impolite word and will sometimes say ‘yes’ to avoid causing offense. What they may be trying to say is ‘I understand you’, not ‘I agree with you’. In Greece people usually nod their head up and down to say ‘no’ and a shake of the head from side to side to say ‘yes’. Very confusing!


Most northern European countries are extremely punctual. However, many South East Asian countries have a much more relaxed attitude towards time. As an Englishman living in South East Asia, I found this very frustrating, but it is often unavoidable and is not meant to cause offense. Take a deep breath and remember ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’.

Business Cards

In Japan, the business card or meishi is extremely important and should be treated with reverence. You must accept the card with both hands and whatever you do, do not stuff it casually into your pocket, this will cause great offense.

Left hand or right hand

In Middle Eastern countries, it is essential to pass things only with your right hand as the left hand is viewed as being unclean.

What’s the worst thing that can happen?

One of the main reasons that the merger between Chrysler and Daimler ended in tears was the lack of understanding of the differences in their respective corporate cultures. This is an extreme example, but it underlines the importance of knowing your market and its nuances and etiquette.

Forewarned is forearmed

There are many useful resources available that will arm you with the essential information you need to know. Your local Chamber of Commerce can also assist you. Whatever you do, make sure you do your research and make your new venture a successful one, right from the get go.


Target Language

BRIC: acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, and China

faux pas (n.): words or behavior that are a social mistake or not polite.

smooth away (phr. v.): to remove the difficulties from something.

hinder (v.): to limit the ability of someone to do something, or to limit the development of something.

tip of the iceberg (n. phr.): a small, noticeable part of a problem, the total size of which is really much greater.

minefield (n.): a situation or subject that is very complicated and full of hidden problems and dangers.

when in Rome, do as the Romans do (idiom): something that you say that means that when you are visiting another country, you should behave like the people in that country.

reverence (n.): a feeling of respect or admiration for someone or something.

end in tears (idiom): something that you say that means something will end badly and the people involved will be upset.

adage (n.): a wise saying.


Top 5

Top 5 Tips for Doing Business Overseas

1. Be prepared. Make sure you know your market.

2. Don’t expect things to be the same as in your local market.

3. Have your business cards printed in both English and the local language.

4. Consider hiring a translator to avoid any misunderstandings.

5. Be patient. Remember that things take a little longer to get done in some places.