Business Etiquette Abroad: How to Avoid Culture Shock When Traveling

Interacting with clients or colleagues in different countries requires respect for some subtle and not so subtle cultural differences between U.S. and foreign business practices. While it would be impossible for us to cover cultural nuances for every country in the world, we’ve compiled this list of best practices and interesting examples from some of the most popular cities for business travel. Whether you’re a frequent business traveler, on your first trip abroad, or a seasoned expatriate, here are some ways you can be respectful of your destination’s culture:

Dressing professionally and appropriately is an important aspect of your travels abroad. If you’re not wearing appropriate clothing, you risk making a negative first impression, which could set the tone for how you’ll be perceived through the duration of your trip. When in doubt, it’s always best to dress conservatively, and keep the standards for international business attire top of mind. Even if you work in an industry where casual dress is the norm (like, technology) it may not be the norm in the country you’re visiting. For example, work attire in Dubai tends to be quite formal, and women should dress modestly, covering shoulders, upper arms and knees.

You’ll usually find that your clients and colleagues speak English, but you can score extra politeness points by learning some important key words and phrases in your destination country’s language. You should also determine what makes for an appropriate topic of conversation. In the U.K., one’s private life is just that. If you ask a Brit personal questions about their lives outside of work, you may get a cold response. Better to keep the conversation light and airy—current events, weather, food…you get the idea.

 Good manners are prized in any dining situation, but if don’t know your country’s dining etiquette, it’s easy to commit a dining faux pas. Take Japan—did you know when pouring a drink from the shared sake at the table, you should always serve others and never yourself? (Your host, or someone else at the table, will fill your glass for you.) Also, when dining in Japan don’t assume you’ll be seated at a table with chairs. Instead, expect to be seated on the tatami, a reed-like mat inset in the top part of the floor. To learn more, check out Etiquette Scholar’s International Dining Etiquette Guides –and don’t forget to research appropriate tipping guidelines too!

Geography can vary tremendously from one area of a country to another and recognizing each region as distinctive is much appreciated by the locals. A good case in point is Canada. Canada is the world’s second largest country and let’s face it—it’s easy to get confused which parts are where, unless you’re a native. So if you’re in Montreal and someone mentions Saskatchewan, make sure you know it’s a province, not a store at the mall or a meal at the local diner. Another way to annoy a Canadian client or colleague is by assuming that Toronto or Montreal is the capital of Canada.

Depending on where you’re going, gifts in business may be expected in some countries (Japan), and could be considered a bribe in others (China). In many countries, it is also polite to give small gifts when meeting someone, but avoid giving overly expensive gifts that may make someone feel awkward if they don’t reciprocate. You can view gift guidelines for many countries around the world here.

Learning how to greet someone in a foreign country is a crucial part of conducting business travel abroad. Think of how embarrassed you’d be if you held your hand out to someone who was expecting a bow or if you addressed someone by their first name who wanted to be addressed by their last name? When in doubt, use a person’s title and last name until they invite you to use their first name and always bring a stack of business cards with you. While business card usage may be declining in the U.S. since the proliferation of the smartphone, in many countries you won’t be taken seriously if you don’t have a business card to give someone when you greet.

The conduct of negotiations in other countries can be much slower-paced as compared to the U.S. For instance, the business cultures in the UAE and China prioritize respect and trust over getting things done quickly. And in the U.K. it’s best to avoid the hard sell. Decision-making is slower in the U.K. than in the U.S., so do not rush your British colleagues toward a decision.

Personal Space:
Remember when Jerry Seinfeld birthed the term, “close talker?” Unlike the U.S., in many countries “close talkers” are not considered an invasion of personal space and moving away may actually be interpreted as rejection. For example, if you’re having a conversation with your associate in Brazil, don’t be alarmed if they’re standing closer than you would like. If it makes you uncomfortable, try to keep your cool—in most cases, no one is trying to make you feel uneasy and this is simply how they’re used to communicating.

 Rule of thumb: play it safe and be on time, no matter your destination. Maintaining punctuality is one of the easiest and most painless ways to make a good impression without a lot of effort. Yes, in some cultures, it’s not expected to be on time, but wouldn’t you rather not risk it? And if your meeting does get a late start, take a relaxed view, especially if you’re someplace like Australia. While punctuality is considered a virtue in Australia, meetings often start five or ten minutes late.