When St. Augustine arrived in Milan to assume his role as Professor of Rhetoric for the Imperial Court, he observed that the Church did not fast on Saturdays as it did in Rome.
Confused, Agostino consulted with the wiser and older Ambrogio (Ambrose), then the Bishop of Milan, who replied: “When I am at Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am at Milan I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are.”
In 1621, British author Robert Burton, in his classic writing, Anatomy of Melancholy, edited St. Ambrose’s remark to read: “When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done. Down through the years, Burton’s turn of the St. Ambrose quote was further edited, anonymously, into what is widely repeated today on a daily basis by some traveler, somewhere, trying to adjust to his/her new or temporary surroundings.
Never does the saying, “When in Rome” have more credence than when doing business in other countries.
As business grows more global, it's becoming more important than ever for executives and employees to respect other cultures' business customs.
When traveling to other countries to do business, research is key. What's considered proper etiquette or good manners varies greatly from country to country.
In some countries, actions that Americans take for granted, like looking a superior in the eye, can be considered rude.
While in America, business meetings are all about business, in many nations it's disrespectful not to inquire about one's health and family before talking about business matters.
The ability to behave and conduct business in a respectful and efficient manner can naturally improve your ability to land important business deals or to even find a new company to work for, if you are looking for a different direction for your professional career.
Plus, understanding international business cultures is fun and interesting.
There’s a whole world of information out there about international business etiquette. Here, it has been travel sized for your convenience.
So, how about when in Rome.
- Punctuality is not a priority for Italians. Be patient and be prepared for some delay when you start working with a new Italian partner. In particular, do not take a small delay as a sign of lack of respect. Where a deadline must be firmly met, be sure to make it very clear to your Italian partner.
- In Italian business culture, gift giving is not particularly common; only after a tried and trusted familiar relationship has been established, you may give a small and not obviously expensive gift as a sign of friendship.
- Keep in mind that Italy is a major center of European fashion. Even casual clothes are smart and chic. Formal attire is generally expected for business meetings, for the most part dark colours for men. Women tend to wear elegant and modest pant or skirt suits, accessorised with simple jewellery and makeup.
- Provide a gift for the person you are conducting business with but keep the following in mind: When handing out the gift always use both hands. Don’t give a watch as a gift, as it represents death in China. Avoid black, blue or white wrapping paper. Chinese people will decline the gift three times, but you need to insist they take it. When you are provided with a gift, you should do the same.
- Chinese people appreciate a conservative dress code and you should avoid physical contact while conversing.
- If you happen to have family roots in China, you can give yourself a Chinese name to use when doing business in the country. This is considered a sign of respect, but you should only do it if you have Chinese roots or you have moved to the country to do long-term business.
- After a business meeting, allow Chinese partners to leave the meeting room first.
- In Japan, bowing is a typical way of greeting each other. Handshakes sometimes occur but you should let the Japanese person initiate it.
- The business meeting is often led by the senior member in the group, while younger members converse less out of respect. Furthermore, similarly positioned people in different groups should sit across from each other. Junior position employees should never sit across from senior employees.
- Giving gifts is common, but you should pay special attention to how you present your gift. Never hand out a gift that isn’t wrapped.
- Japan is especially sensitive to the word "no." In the country, it is customary to respond with, "yes" even if you disagree with what is being said.
- In France, it is vital to ensure that you make appointments for both business and social occasions. It is not acceptable in France to drop in on someone unannounced.
- Punctuality is treated quite casually in France, so do not be surprised to find your French colleague arriving fairly late. However, staying late at the office is common, especially for individuals in more senior positions.
- As you would expect, the nation that created haute couture puts a premium on style. Fashion and appearance are much more important in France than in most other countries in the world. Even low-paid, entry-level executives buy the best clothes they can afford. Generally, dress tends to be on the formal side for both men and women, whether in business or social situations.
- Giving presents is acceptable here, but exercise discretion. Business gifts are usually not exchanged at the first meeting.
- While you can show up to meetings on time, don’t be surprised if Indian business partners are late.
- Like in Japan, the word, "no" can be considered rude in India. Try to use words like, "We will see" or "Possibly" instead of saying, "no".
- If you are offered a meal by your business partner, never say, "Thank you" at the end of it, as it is considered to be a payment on your behalf and therefore insulting.
- Avoid eating beef at business meetings.
- Business meetings often last longer than planned, but do not leave before the meeting has officially ended. Leaving early is considered rude.
- In Brazil, physical contact during conversation is natural and highlights the trust between business partners.
- Unlike in India, eating with your hands in Brazil should be avoided. Even if you were eating a sandwich, you’d want to use a napkin or other such utensil.
The United Kingdom
- When conversing with the British, try saying, "Please", "Thank you" and "Sorry" frequently, as this is considered polite.
- The British often don’t retain eye contact during a conversation.
- Unlike Brazilians, Brits like to have personal space, so don’t stand too close.
- Business events are well-structured and straight to the point. You don’t want to be joking during business meetings.
- Be punctual and on time. Germans are hardworking, so you want to demonstrate that their time is valuable.
- When entering business meetings, allow the oldest person to enter the room first.
Related Article: Going Global: Building an International Footprint as a SMB
With the business borders expanding, being clued in to a countries business etiquette is not only good manners it's good business.
Check out this helpful infographic that breaks down different business customs around the world.
And, pick up this business etiquette book earning top reviews before you book your international business trip.
Bon voyage and bon business.