5 Foreign Customs That Every Business Traveler Should Be Familiar With

When traveling overseas for work, it is essential that you prepare by learning about the culture and business practices followed in the countries that you plan to visit. Familiarising yourself with the business etiquettes and norms that your hosts follow could help you land the contract that you have been working on for months.

For instance, it is important to learn about the appropriate way to dress for a business meeting. Is it an acceptable practice to order alcohol with your meal? How should you address your counterparts in the company that you are dealing with? Certain behaviours that are perfectly acceptable in one country get you in trouble in another. For example, smiling in America conveys confidence and professionalism, while in Russia, smiling could be seen as a form of insincerity. If you plan to visit Israel on business, don’t expect to get any work done on Friday. Their work week is from Sunday to Thursday.

Here are a few points that could help to prepare you for your next overseas business trip.

1. Correct Way to Shake Hands

Getting the handshake right could set the tone for the rest of the meeting. It is crucial that you don’t mess up at the initial stage of your interaction with your business host.

In France, handshakes need to be brief and you should remember not to exert too much pressure. When in Brazil, you need to do exactly the opposite. Handshakes in this South American country should be firm. They also last longer, usually for a few seconds at least. You should also maintain a reasonable level of eye contact when shaking hands. When travelling to Australia on business, keep your handshakes firm and quick. It is considered bad form to use both hands. When in the United Arab Emirates, China, Korea or Japan, remember that you should shake the hand of the oldest or most senior member of the host’s team first, and avoid the temptation to pull your hand away first.

2. Don’t Forget to Bring Your Business Cards to Asia

With the proliferation of email and smartphones, business cards are no longer as important as they used to be. But this does not hold true in Asian countries like Korea or Japan. If you make a business visit to that country and don’t remember to pack your business cards, you could find yourself in a highly embarrassing situation.

Also, when handing over your card, you shoul do so with both hands. The exchange of business cards is an important ritual and you need to follow its rules carefully. The senior members of your team should exchange cards with their counterparts first. Not only that, at the time you offer your card, you must ensure that it is turned towards the receiver. Don’t put away the cards that you receive immediately. They should remain in view during the meeting.

3. Learn How to Address A Business Associate

In many countries around the world, the usual practice is to use a person’s title and surname until you are asked to switch over to their first names. Using the first name without being explicitly told to do so can be considered rude. This rule applies in European countries like France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK.

Australians and Brazilians are a little less formal and using first names at the initial meeting could be considered acceptable here. But you may want to wait for permission to do this. It’s better to be slightly over-formal rather than risk being informal and getting off to a wrong start.

Businesspersons in the US have a fairly relaxed attitude and first names work in most situations. But Canadians do not share the same attitude. It is better to use a person’s title and surname till you are requested to use the first name.

4. Business Etiquette In the US

American business practices can often be at odds with those followed in other countries. For example, one classic difference is the level of formality. US business people tend to be a lot less formal than, say, their Japanese or Chinese counterparts.

Another area where practices diverge is the practice of giving gifts. In China and other oriental countries, gifting is part of the culture, but it can be perceived very differently in the US. In fact, many American companies actively discourage the practice of giving and accepting gifts. If you do want to give a gift, make sure that it is not very expensive.

Lastly, while the practice of exchanging business cards is still prevalent in the US, it is not ritualized like it is in Japan. It is quite alright to hand over your card casually at the end of the meeting.

5. Knowing How to Communicate in Different Countries Is Important

Business meetings are about making proposals, conveying your point of view, and negotiating mutually acceptable outcomes. But when you are in a different country, how you communicate is as important as what you say.

If work happens to take you to France, it would be a good idea to learn a little French. Your hosts will appreciate the effort that you have made to pick up their language. When in Germany, it is advisable to adapt your communication style to the local practice. Germans are very direct and convey their thoughts in a manner that is quite blunt. You should not mistake this for rudeness.

In Japan, it is the practice for the senior-most member of the team to lead the discussion. Junior staff may play a limited role in a meeting and it is quite common for them not to speak at all. A business team that is visiting Japan should ensure that its senior members engage with their Japanese counterparts.

Study the Culture of the Country That You Are Visiting

The success of your overseas business trip does not entirely depend upon the proposal that you are carrying with you or on how well-prepared you are with your facts and figures. Remember, you also need to learn how to abide by the unwritten business rules of the country that you are visiting. Knowing the nuances can really make tangible differences in your interactions with your counterparts, and ultimately help close your deals.

Duckju Kang

Duckju (DJ) is the founder and CEO of ValueChampion. He covers the financial services industry, consumer finance products, budgeting and investing. He previously worked at hedge funds such as Tiger Asia and Cadian Capital. He graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics with honors, Magna Cum Laude. His work has been featured on major international media such as CNBC, Bloomberg, CNN, the Straits Times, Today and more.