Business etiquette when traveling abroad

When work takes you to a foreign destination with a drastic change in culture, your behavior may need to change with it. Adjusting to a country's business practices can be a challenge, so doing some research on your foreign country of destination can definitely come in handy when unfamiliar with how business is conducted in any particular culture. Protocol may differ among cities and regions, but learning the general cultural customs will prepare you to avoid social blunders and lead to more favorable business negotiations.


Attire: It's common knowledge that your appearance and clothing make the first impression in the eyes and mind of a business partner. Choosing the appropriate attire for a business meeting abroad is essential. When in doubt, always dress conservatively. It may be casual to dress down in your industry, but that might not be the case in the same industry in a foreign country. Dressing too casually is considered disrespectful in several countries.

Greetings: After the quick first impression your attire makes, greetings can determine how you are perceived for the duration of a meeting or entire trip. Knowing how to properly greet someone abroad is crucial. In some countries, it is only polite to address someone by their last name, never by their first. In others, men greet women with a kiss. Sometimes, a handshake must be accompanied by a reciprocating nod. Learning common greeting rituals that may include additional key words of the language can also prove to be beneficial.

Gifts: Unlike the US, gifts are a very common item to bring along into a business meeting in other countries. Business executives in countries like Japan, China, or Taiwan appreciate and at times expect presents. It is best to research and abide by the company's policy concerning gifts for countries where this practice is common. Avoid getting anything too extravagant or personal, as it may feel awkward when not reciprocated.

Meetings/Communication: English is widely spoken when performing business globally, so chances are you will most likely not have to worry about a language barrier. But it doesn't hurt to brush up on a few key words and phrases in your foreign destination's official language. In France, it is suggested to apologize for your lack of language skills if you do not speak French. An interpreter may be required in some situations, so arrangements should be made prior to traveling.

Punctuality should be maintained no matter your destination, although some countries tend to be a more lenient and may begin a meeting late. In Japan, the exchange of business cards is a formal act that kicks off meetings and they must be presented with two hands. The same gesture is expected when handing a gift to a Chinese executive. Negotiations in China also tend to be slower-paced, as building trust and relationships is valued more than seeing results quickly.

Dining: Good manners are valued in any dining situation anywhere, but certain intricacies in dining etiquette vary greatly in several countries. In Brazil for example, it is disrespectful to eat with your hands, even if it's a sandwich or pizza. Traditional food in India is eaten with your hands, but only the right hand as the left hand is considered unclean. In China, it's considered impolite to eat your entire meal. To avoid being perceived as rude at a foreign dining table, check out the International Dining Etiquette Guide, which outlines etiquette for different dining situations by country.


Miscellanous tips:

  • Brush up on your destination's geography, i.e. towns, capital cities, provinces. You don't want to mistake the name of a region for the name of a local mall.
  • Don't take certain social encounters personally. What might be considered rude in the US is not necessarily rude in other countries.
  • Look up recent news in the country you are visiting. If a major current event is the topic of discussion in a social situation, you don't want to be completely lost.
  • If it's your first time visiting and have personal time to spare, explore the unfamiliar territory and enjoy yourself!