Understanding International Business Etiquette. Part 1

The rapidly expanding global economy means that at some point in your business career, you will do business overseas. And when you do, you will find that the customs, practices, and rules for conducting business are not what you’re used to. Before you get on that plane, take some time to learn the customs of your host, and be prepared to accommodate them.

My rules! You lose

Stubborn businesspeople who try to do business overseas, but adhere strictly to their own customs, won’t get very far. It may be your own practice to invite a new client out to a steak dinner, but you won’t win any friends doing that in India. You may have always been taught to give a firm handshake and look somebody in the eye, but in Thailand you will be seen as too aggressive. And, you may have a custom of being friendly to a customer’s wife, but if you do that in Saudi Arabia, you’ll be on the next plane home.

The point is—you have a certain set of rules for business etiquette that you have learned to follow. But when you go overseas, you’ll have to adjust to international business etiquette rules. There are even rules on properly presenting them your business card.

It’s never “just business”

In the United States, there’s an expression: “It’s just business.” In most other countries, it’s never just business—and you will need to cultivate a personal relationship with your counterparts. Your custom of exchanging a few pleasantries and then getting down to details is no longer valid. You may have to spend days, or even weeks doing nothing but chatting about each others’ families, complimenting them on their fine country, and going out to restaurants and bars together.

Every business deal starts with food

Nothing says more about a culture than its food, and more business deals get started around a dinner table than a conference room. You may have to cultivate a cast iron stomach, because you will be expected to sample the local delicacies. You may be hankering for steak and potatoes, but don’t let on—just smile and eat your red ants and chiles and pretend that you like them.

It’s very likely that you will go out to restaurants with your foreign counterparts, and you may even get invited to their home. Leave your regional tastes behind, and enjoy the variety. It will be an insult if you refuse their local cuisine and insist on a hamburger and fries!

The boozy business deal

With food, there is alcohol. Often, lots of it. And in many countries, it’s not just something to drink, it’s a ritual. If you’re in Poland, your host will pour vodka for everyone around the table, and then toast to your company or your country. You must return the toast, of course, so be prepared with a few kind words to say. This will continue until the bottle is empty. Eastern Europeans tend to have a high tolerance for liquor, so try to pace yourself as much as possible. When you do order a drink, order the local favorite. Instead of your customary light beer, if you’re in Japan, you’ll have sake. In Greece, Ouzo. In France, some marvelous Bordeaux.