Understanding International Business Etiquette
Updated May 23, 2023 • 5 min read
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It's a good idea for international travelers to learn about a country's culture and communication norms before they arrive. Being aware of topics like intercultural communication can help travelers recognize the value that specific cultures place on indirect and direct communication.
Preparation is particularly important for those teaching abroad or traveling for business. Knowledge of international business etiquette is relevant for conducting meetings, building relationships with others and demonstrating respect for local culture.
The following sections offer a partial look at business etiquette in China, Germany, France and Brazil.
International Business Etiquette in Select Countries
Business Etiquette in China
Travelers should be aware of China's two-child policy (changed to two children from one child in October 2015). It is easy to make an offensive or awkward comment in relationship to the law that allows Chinese couples to have no more than two children. For example, according to a story from USA TODAY, an American consultant inadvertently offended a room of Chinese people by briefly displaying a desktop photo of his three children prior to making a video presentation.
Meetings in China reflect the hierarchy of leaders and other individuals, according to the online publication Just Landed. For instance, the leader of each party is expected to enter the room first, and the most important person will have a good view of the whole room and will not sit with his or her back to a door or mirror. Travelers should try to imitate these customs.
Business cards should be handled with care. People should present and receive a business card with two hands. Recipients should look at the card for a brief period and then set it carefully on the table; immediately putting it in a pocket or wallet is a sign of disrespect.
Gifts can be appropriate at meetings, especially an initial business meeting. However, care should be taken, so travelers may want to ask someone who understands Chinese culture for advice. Clocks, handkerchiefs, umbrellas or white flowers can be associated with death and sorrow, sharp objects signify cutting of a relationship, and anything associated with the number four is considered unlucky. According to Forbes, travelers should persist when giving the gift, because in order to not appear greedy, the Chinese will decline a gift three times before accepting. Travelers should decline a gift three times before receiving it.
Other steps, like learning how to eat with chopsticks, can be helpful, but they are not required. “Chinese business people generally respect cultural differences and won't expect westerners to be fully customized to their tradition,” CNN reports.
Business Etiquette in Germany
Order and structure permeate work life in Germany, says The Local, a digital news site. Business is taken seriously to allow a clear division between work and personal life. As a result, there are some guidelines that travelers should abide by in traditional German business environments.
- Make appointments one to two weeks in advance.
- Arrive early. Being late is incredibly rude—it is “a cardinal sin,” according to The Local.
- Dress conservatively.
- When speaking, maintain physical distance.
- Shake hands before and after a meeting, using a firm and brief grip.
- When dining, wait for the host to initiate drinking, eating, and conversation.
The serious nature of business in Germany can mean that humor may not be welcome or appreciated. It is usually wise to remain more formal. Germans often prefer to stick to the agenda and get straight to the point. Bluntness is not automatically considered rude.
Giving gifts is often inappropriate, and may be taboo or illegal (many companies, as well as public service, have strict anti-corruption rules). If travelers become friends with a contact in Germany or are invited to someone's home, a small gift (flowers, chocolates or an interesting souvenir) can be appropriate. The gift should not be expensive.
Business Etiquette in France
People visiting or living in France should note two things that the country takes seriously: language and cuisine. Travelers are encouraged to respect and enjoy these parts of French culture, International Business Times advises.
Most people in the French business world speak English fluently, but if travelers do not attempt to learn French, it can be held against them. Learning basic phrases can help. People should address others using “Monsieur” or “Madame,” and remember to introduce themselves using their first and last name. It is wise to have one side of a business card translated into French.
Meals can be large and last for a long time. Table manners are continental style, with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand. Hands should remain visible on the table and not in the lap. Guests should arrive on time, and should not add seasonings to food.
Other standards of French business etiquette include the following:
- A brisk and light handshake is typical.
- Professional and personal lives are kept separate.
- Interruptions and a lot of questions are common in conversation.
- High-pressure tactics are not appreciated.
- The French take pride in their culture and enjoy discussions about other country's cultures.
- Appearance plays an important role in French business culture, so formal and professional attire is recommended.
Business Etiquette in Brazil
Business in Brazil is often conducted in person, which is preferred over written communication. Brazilians highly value personal relationships, so friendliness is key for travelers. It is common in Brazil to mix professional and social relationships.
Meetings and business dinners tend to run late in Brazil, so travelers should not schedule appointments closely together. Leaving early is considered rude. Arriving a few minutes late to a meeting or meal is usually acceptable—except in regions like São Paulo or Brasilia, Just Landed reports. Those unsure of local customs should arrive on time until they are more comfortable with the area.
People in Brazil tend to speak when close in distance, and physical touch is common, USA TODAY says. Firm handshakes are common between men. A woman typically extends her hand to a male, but may kiss a female associate on either cheek. When speaking, eye contact is important, even if an interpreter is present. Travelers should try to have one side of their business card translated into Portuguese. In a formal conversation, people's titles are usually followed by their first name (rather than their last name).
Instructing English Language Learners (ELLs)
Southeastern University's online Master of Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages provides graduates with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in a foreign environment. Curriculum includes pedagogical techniques and how to adapt to a new environment and respect the culture of the country where students teach. The program takes place in a fully online environment, allowing students flexibility and the ability to maintain their personal and professional schedules.
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