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Updated Nov 06, 2023

International Business Etiquette From Around the World

If you do business with companies from other countries, you must understand how international business etiquette varies from place to place.

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Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Successful entrepreneurs understand that good business is about good relationships. By establishing partnerships with suppliers, competitors and new connections, you can build a healthier, stronger business. Never is this more important than when you’re considering international business. By expanding your scope overseas, you open up your company to new influences, customers and power.

Of course, it’s all easier said than done. Aside from logistics, you need to consider that you’ll encounter people from completely different cultures. It’s essential to recognize differences in business etiquette when working with international clients. By understanding the culture you’re engaging with, you can make connections, make others feel comfortable and welcome and avoid embarrassment.

Researching local customs before doing business in a new country

When you travel to other countries to do business, research is key. What’s considered proper etiquette or good manners varies greatly from country to country.

When conducting business in the United States, eye contact during conversations, especially with superiors, signifies respect and confidence. In some countries, however, eye contact is considered rude. 

Business meetings are all about business in the U.S. but, in many nations, it’s disrespectful not to inquire about one’s health and family before talking about professional matters.

Did You Know?Did you know
The ability to behave and conduct business in a respectful and efficient manner can improve your chances of landing important business deals or finding a new company to work for if you are seeking a new career trajectory.

There’s a whole world of information out there about international business etiquette. Here, it has been travel-sized for your convenience.

Business etiquette: China

  • Show up on time for business meetings. Punctuality is important to the Chinese and being late is offensive. 
  • Chinese people appreciate a conservative dress code, and you should avoid physical contact while conversing.
  • Always be prepared for meetings. Conduct research on the company ahead of time and avoid scheduling a meeting during a Chinese holiday.
  • Enter the room in hierarchical order. The person of the highest seniority will enter the room first and the rest will follow in order. 
  • Mandarin is the official language of China, but there are some other languages to be aware of, such as Cantonese and Shanghainese.
  • Avoid firm negatives, such as a simple “no.” Try to find an alternative, such as “That’s something I will have to think about.” 

Business etiquette: Japan

  • Bowing is a typical way of greeting each other. Handshakes sometimes occur, but you should let the Japanese person initiate it.
  • The senior member of the group often leads the business meeting while younger members, out of respect, speak less. People of similar positions in different groups should sit across from each other; junior 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 and make sure you give it to the person with both hands.
  • When handing out business cards, make sure you’re using both hands. Bowing during this exchange is viewed as a form of respect.  

Business etiquette: India

  • While you can show up to meetings on time, don’t be surprised if Indian business partners are late.
  • Like in China, the word “no” can be considered rude in India. Try to use words and phrases like “we will see” or “possibly” instead of “no.”
  • If your business partner offers you a meal, it is proper etiquette to accept the invitation. Declining the meal could jeopardize the possible business connection. 
  • Avoid eating meat at business meetings if everyone else is ordering vegetarian meals. Many people in India do not eat pork or beef for religious reasons. 
  • When conducting business in India, English is the typical language to use.

Business etiquette: France

  • It is vital to make appointments for both business and social occasions. It is not acceptable in France to drop in on someone unannounced.
  • Punctuality is valued but sometimes treated casually in France, so do not be surprised if your French colleague arrives late. Staying late at the office is common too, especially for individuals in senior positions.
  • As you would expect, the nation that created haute couture puts a premium on style. Fashion and appearance are more important in France than in many other countries in the world. Even low-paid, entry-level executives buy the best clothes they can afford. Dress tends to be on the formal side for both men and women, whether in business or social situations.
  • Giving presents is fine here but use discretion. Business gifts are usually not exchanged at the first meeting.

Business etiquette: Italy

So, how about when in Rome?

  • Italians do not prioritize punctuality, so be patient and prepare for any delays that may arise. Do not take a small delay as a sign of disrespect. When a deadline must be firmly met, make it very clear to your Italian partner.
  • In Italian business culture, it’s not common to give gifts, especially expensive ones. Only after you’ve established a trusting relationship with someone may you give a small and not obviously expensive gift as a sign of friendship.
  • 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, men wear dark colors. Women tend to wear elegant and modest pant suits or skirt suits, accessorized with simple jewelry and makeup.

Business etiquette: Germany

  • Business events are well-structured and straight to the point. You don’t want to be joking during business meetings.
  • Be punctual. Germans are hardworking, so you want to demonstrate that their time is valuable.
  • A typical greeting involves a firm and brief handshake with everyone as you enter and exit the meeting. 
  • When entering business meetings, allow the oldest person to enter the room first.
  • Address people by their title and surname to show respect. 

Business etiquette: Brazil

  • 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.
  • You should avoid eating with your hands in Brazil. Even if you’re eating a sandwich, you’ll want to use a napkin or utensil.
  • Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, but some Brazilians also speak Spanish. Some parts of the country also speak German.

Business etiquette: The United Kingdom

  • Punctuality and preparation are valuable, so arrive on time. If you’re running late, call or message someone to inform them. 
  • When conversing with the British, try saying “please,” “thank you” and “sorry” frequently, as this is considered polite.
  • A polite greeting typically involves maintaining eye contact and offering a handshake. 
  • Unlike Brazilians, Brits like to have personal space, so don’t stand too close.
Bottom LineBottom line
Research the country where you’re doing business to learn about workplace culture ahead of time to show respect and build strong professional relationships.

Preparing to go global

With business borders expanding, following a country’s business etiquette is not only good manners — it’s good business. As you’re preparing to expand globally, research the country and its culture. Not only does this help you understand how to build business relationships respectfully, but it may also keep you from unknowingly breaking laws or disrespecting people’s religions or cultures. Business laws and regulations may differ from the ones you’re familiar with, so review them to ensure you’re conducting business legally. It may also be beneficial to learn the country’s language if they conduct business in a language other than your own. 

Before globally expanding your business, establish a strong and consistent brand and develop a strategy for marketing, handling payments and developing partnerships. The more partnerships you cultivate, the easier it may be to expand your business into different countries and enter global markets. [Learn about important considerations for an international digital marketing strategy.]

Global expansion is not easy and requires high adaptability to succeed. You will likely make mistakes along the way, but it’s important to learn from them and address any issues moving forward. 

Overall, global expansion can be a great way to grow your brand and customer base overseas, increase revenue, become a more diverse business and enter into new markets. [Read about expanding internationally by leveraging local PEO services.]

Additional reporting by Matt D’Angelo.

author image
Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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