Put Down That Sandwich! (and Other International Business Etiquette Tips)

Did you know it’s a faux pas to give a clock as a business gift in China? Were you aware it’s considered impolite to eat a sandwich with your hands in the Netherlands? Have you heard that many Europeans consider it poor form to shake hands while wearing gloves?

OK, while you might not have known about those specific cultural nuances, you definitely should understand the importance of observing international business etiquette.

The ongoing growth of global business means employees are working with an ever-expanding mix of colleagues and clients from across the world. As a result, it’s necessary to be aware of and sensitive to cultural differences and customs. Whether you’re a frequent globetrotter or you’re part of an international work team, here are some business etiquette tips to keep in mind:

Hit the Books Before Biz Trips

You recently found out your company is sending you overseas for a key client meeting. You’ve spent the last two weeks trying to craft a persuasive presentation. While that effort will certainly help your cause, you still have some work to do: researching the country’s prevailing rules of decorum.

Regardless of how perfect your pitch, you’ll undermine your efforts if you display poor manners. For example, the exchange of business cards is a formal process in Japan, and it’s considered extremely rude to immediately put a contact’s card in your wallet or write on it. In many European countries, it’s discourteous to talk with your hands in your pockets. Set yourself up for success by consulting etiquette books and online guides prior to your trip.

Communicate With Class

Even if you don’t travel to other countries, it’s still smart to brush up on international business etiquette so that you can make a positive impression when entertaining foreign visitors or communicating via phone, videoconference and even email. Here are five general suggestions:

  • Understand the name game. Improperly addressing a person can do quick damage. Learn the appropriate use of first names, last names and honorific titles. In addition, make sure you know how to properly pronounce the names of your business contacts and their organizations.
  • Don’t be a jokester. Play it safe and use humor thoughtfully. Sarcasm, irony, puns, wordplay and self-deprecating humor are not universally understood or appreciated.
  • Know your gestures. Be aware of your body language during meetings and videoconferences. Some common gestures in American culture can prove problematic. In Bulgaria, for example, a head nod actually means no.
  • Minimize email misunderstandings. Steer clear of slang and emoticons. Also, avoid typing in all capital letters or using colorful fonts. The color red is associated with death in some cultures, for example.
  • Turn a phrase. You don’t necessarily have to become fluent in another language to show foreign colleagues and clients that you’re making an effort. You can generate some goodwill simply by making the effort to learn a phrase or two in that person’s native language.

Finally, keep in mind that even if you're diligent about adhering to global business etiquette concerns, it's still possible to make unintended mistakes. Expect the occasional minor gaffe and respond with the one thing that never gets lost in translation: a smile.

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