One of the first things people notice when they branch out into doing business internationally is how big a role social norms play in business dealings. It’s the same in North America, but the contrast is much more jarring when dealing with a new country, new etiquette, and new expectations. Whether you are applying for financing from a lender or opening a new branch of your business overseas, it’s important to understand that how you conduct yourself can have a profound impact on the success (or failure) of your business. Here are a few general guidelines to help you conduct business in a variety of regions around the world.
In Asian boardrooms, meeting participants will typically be arranged by seniority. This is also the order in which they should be greeted, and the order in which you should pass out your business cards. This is a sign of respect. Speaking of business cards, be prepared to hand out many more in Asia than you would in North America. There is a ceremony around exchanging business cards in countries such as Japan. Be sure to invest in a business card case, as it is seen as rude and inappropriate to keep them in your wallet or pocket.
In some Middle Eastern countries, note that it is quite normal for a male client or colleague to grasp another man’s hand while walking together. Although this may seem unusual to North American sensibilities, it’s considered a sign of trust in some parts of the world.
It’s also a good idea to bear in mind that questions that may be perceived in North America as being simple small talk may actually consider quite rude and intrusive in some countries, such as questions about marital status, children, age, etc. In professional situations, it’s always best to err on the side of being too impersonal rather than to risk being considered nosey.
Gift-giving in a business setting is complicated in some cultures. In some cases, for example, it is considered improper to open a gift in front of the giver, so be aware of that if you are presented with a gift.
Manners are a very big point of difference among different cultures. For example, it is perfectly acceptable and actually expected, that diners will eat a sandwich with a knife and fork. Similarly, belching and slurping one’s food is considered rude in some cultures, but quite acceptable in others. It is considered socially unacceptable in countries such as Japan to be seen blowing one’s nose in public.
When it comes to professional attire, you can never go wrong erring on the side of conservative, no matter where you are in the world. Women should take special care to dress more modestly, as it can be a serious culture misstep to dress too revealingly.
When you do business with other countries, it’s important to know the business and legal issues that may arise, but never forget that business is, as the heart of things, a people-first endeavor. The more you can be aware of and respectful of the social expectations, manners, and etiquette in the region in which you are doing business, the more professional you will be perceived. And that can go a long way toward helping you to solidify meaningful business connections around the world. If you aren’t sure how to act or what to do, always educate yourself before you arrive. Not only do you not want to look foolish, you also don’t want to be insulting. There are lots of resources online and in books to help you navigate these challenging waters.