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International Business Etiquette: Part 1


27th October 2014

Emily Robertshaw

The importance of doing your research

So you’ve just been told you’re going on an important business trip to China, or the Middle East. What’s the first thing you do? Practise a few Chinese or Arabic phrases? Look up information on currency or hotels? Or even just surf the web for some interesting restaurants or sights to explore, in the hope that you’ll have a bit of time outside of meetings? Well, all of these are certainly good places to start. However, when heading abroad you do also need to be aware that there is NO universal rule for business etiquette, and so preparation is key! Conducting business in your usual manner could lead to an embarrassing faux pas.

With this in mind, here is part one of some of the international business culture basics worth researching before travelling to certain countries, so as to conduct successful business meetings abroad without making a fool of yourself. If you would like any information on specific countries that haven’t been mentioned then feel free to get in touch.



It is paramount in any business situation in a foreign country to learn the customary way of greeting in both formal and informal situations.

In most European countries it is polite to shake hands with everyone in the meeting before it starts. In France you must always shake hands when meeting and leaving and use ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’, followed by the surname, unless told otherwise. The same applies in Germany, replacing ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Madame’ with ‘Herr’ or ‘Frau’; and it is also customary for all men to stand when a woman enters the room. If you’ve met several times, or deem the situation to be slightly more informal, then you could ask if you can be on first name terms. But again, if in doubt, go for the more formal approach to avoid overstepping the mark too early!

It is very important to know that in Japan, bowing is customary. Make sure you bow with a straight back and with your hands by your sides. Bow deeply to show respect when greeting and leaving someone for the first few times, and after that the bows can be quicker and smaller.



Dress code

As in most workplaces, it is very important to make a good first impression  on your foreign colleagues. However, in some countries there are certain details to bear in mind. In Arab countries, women should wear loose-fitting dresses that cover the arms.On the whole, bright colours can be considered garish so should be avoided. Stick to conservative navy, black and grey and wear smart but comfortable shoes.

In Japan it is also wise to wear shoes that you can slip on and off easily, as shoe removal is very common when entering different buildings.

Females should also be aware of any strict dress code rules. For example, in Iran all women must cover their arms, legs and hair in business environments, and ignoring this would cause serious offence. In Saudi Arabia, women (including  female English visitors) aren’t  allowed out without a chaperone.

To sum up – if in doubt, dress smartly and conservatively. It’s better to be on the safe side and feel slightly overdressed than to give a negative first impression.


Giving gifts

When visiting another company abroad, although it’s not often compulsory, it may be a nice gesture to take a small gift from your own country as a thank you. However, do watch out as in some countries it is obligatory to give gifts, while in others it can be considered offensive or even a bribe…you are no doubt beginning to see why it is so important to learn the correct thing to do, as it does not always match what might be the norm in your own country

In China you must ensure that you give a gift that is deemed appropriate; giving a very expensive gift may be considered a bribe. Be aware that clocks, straw sandals and handkerchiefs all symbolise death so obviously  do not give them as gifts! It is also customary to decline a gift three times before accepting it, so make sure you keep insisting, and mimic this if someone offers you a gift.

giving gift

In Japan it is customary to give a gift when visiting a new workplace. Gifts are usually wrapped, presented with both hands, and opened later in private to avoid offence. When visiting a colleague’s home, flowers may be an appropriate gift, but there has to be an even number as odd numbers are given at sad occasions. It is remarkable how much impact such tiny details like these can have, so they must not be forgotten!

In Germany more personal gifts in the workplace such as clothing and perfume are best avoided. Tasteful, quality office items such as pens are deemed much more appropriate.

Finally, make a note when visiting a company in Italy that you should refrain from giving a gift until you have received one yourself.

So… perhaps before booking a nice hotel, or researching new cuisine you might get to sample, spare a moment of thought for these other important points!

Why not read our International Business Etiquette: The importance of doing your research – Part 2 where we look at international dining etiquette and body language/gestures…

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