15 Most Important Do’s and Don’ts of Global Business Etiquette

Globalization has changed the way we do business. Learning and respecting the nuances of a different culture can help you close deals faster and build lasting business relationships.

Global business etiquette covers everything from greeting styles to non-verbal cues. Understanding local customs and adapting your communication styles are key to breaking into a new market.

While navigating diverse cultural environments may seem daunting, these do’s and don’ts of global business etiquette can help you achieve success.

1. Do Your Homework

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Do your research about the local culture and business traditions of the country where you will do business. Understanding nuances like greetings, gestures, and communication styles can help you break the ice and build lasting business relationships.

Understanding local business customs allows you to avoid communication faux pas and demonstrates your respect for their culture.

2. Don’t Generalize

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Business is done differently in different parts of the world. Don’t assume that every country you deal with will hold the same business etiquette as you. While setting meetings on Fridays is expected in the United States and Canada, you can’t do the same in Egypt and the Czech Republic; they take that day off.

Appropriate work behavior also varies from country to country. Deals in Finland are usually closed during a steaming session in a sauna. At the same time, South Koreans prefer a round of karaoke after a business dinner. Embracing the local culture will help you create lasting business relationships.

3. Do Be Punctual

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Punctuality is a universally appreciated business etiquette. Arriving a little early for a meeting demonstrates respect for both time and prospective business partners. If you’re running late, it’s best to inform the other party to avoid a feeling of disrespect.

It’s also important to understand that some people may have a more relaxed approach to time management. For example, Italians often arrive late for meetings, and Spain has a lax view of deadlines.

4. Don’t Disrespect Local Customs

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Every country has different customs regarding physical proximity, eye contact, and gift-giving. Close physical proximity and frequent touches are common in Brazil and Argentina to express warmth and acceptance. However, in China and Saudi Arabia, anything more than a handshake is considered inappropriate.

Interrupting someone and speaking over others should be avoided in general, especially in countries like Japan, where interrupting someone mid-speech, even to ask a question, is considered extremely rude.

5. Do Dress Appropriately

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Choosing the right outfit for your business meetings is crucial to your success. Do your research to learn if your prospective business partners prefer a conservative suit or more relaxed attire. When in doubt, go with a more conservative look.

While it’s important to embrace local customs, be mindful of overstepping. For example, in South Africa, women often wear a sari at business meetings, but that doesn’t mean you have to or should.

6. Don’t Neglect Communication

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Communication is key to building lasting business relationships. Follow up immediately after a business meeting with an email or phone call to demonstrate your interest in building a solid working relationship.

Keep in touch with your business partners, even if it’s just a quick email or text message. Engage in small talk about the weather, local landmarks, and cultural events to break the ice and inspire trust.

7. Do Respect Titles and Cultural Hierarchies

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Your company may have a flat organizational structure, but that may not be true with other businesses. In countries like the Philippines, the organizational hierarchy is strictly observed, and you’re required to greet the highest-ranking individual first.

In Hong Kong, seating arrangements at business events follow a hierarchy, with the high-ranking officials getting a seat at the front. When conducting meetings in South Africa, you must greet everyone present individually. Understanding cultural nuances can help you make the right impression.

8. Don’t Assume Everyone Can Understand English

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English isn’t even spoken as a second language in many countries around the world. Don’t assume everyone at a new business meeting can understand or speak English. When conducting business in countries like China, arrange for an interpreter to ensure smooth communication.

You might have to tweak your emails and other written communication to suit the requirements of your new business partners. You may also need to get some documents translated into the local language.

9. Do Mind Your Body Language

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When it comes to global business etiquette, non-verbal communication is equally, if not more, important than verbal. Be mindful of the gestures you make, eye contact, and even how and when you smile, as these can send the wrong message.

In Iran, a thumbs-up can be misconstrued as an insult. At the same time, the “OK” symbol in Venezuela has a negative connotation. In Singapore, tapping your foot during a meeting means you’re uninterested in what is being said. Even a harmless gesture like tapping your nose can send the wrong signal, especially in the UK, where it signifies sharing a secret.

10. Don’t Be Aggressive

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In business, there’s a fine line between assertiveness and aggression. It’s important not to cross that line or risk putting off prospective business partners. Find a way to get your point across without sounding like you’re pushing your ideas on people.

Practicing diplomacy and tact in your communications can help you get more people to understand your point of view without accidentally offending someone.

11. Do Practice Patience and Open-Mindedness

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You might be used to closing business deals over a meeting or two in your country. Still, in many countries, business deals take time and patience. In Japan, companies like to build relationships with foreign companies with which they do business.

Demonstrating patience and open-mindedness when dealing with foreign companies can help build lasting business relationships.

12. Don’t Discuss Sensitive Topics

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Pay attention to cultural sensitivities when choosing topics to discuss with foreign companies. Issues related to religion and politics should be avoided, as they might hurt feelings. It’s also important to ask personal questions only once or unless you develop a closer relationship with your business partners.

Focus on business-related topics and avoid polarizing issues. Maintain a professional demeanor during meetings and avoid overfamiliarity.

13. Do Focus on Building Relationships First

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In many cultures, business meetings are treated like marriages; you develop trust and loyalty first and close the deal afterward. It’s important to court your potential business partners in a way that demonstrates your commitment to building a lasting relationship.

Be mindful of cultural sensitivities when choosing how to approach the business relationship. For example, gift-giving is an integral part of the culture of some countries like China and Mexico. Other places like South Africa consider gift-giving in business unethical.

14. Don’t Use Inappropriate Humor

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Humor is a great tool for breaking the ice and building rapport. However, take care that your brand of humor doesn’t offend anyone. Avoid sarcasm, as that may not be understood in a multicultural environment.

Misusing humor can make you seem unprofessional and fickle. It’s always a good idea to check your jokes on people you know in a personal capacity first.

15. Do Mind Your Table Manners

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Business meals are usually an extension of the negotiations. In South Africa, business meetings are typically arranged over lunch or dinner at a good restaurant. Don’t rush through meals, which is considered rude in many countries.

Familiarize yourself with basic dining etiquette, such as which utensils to use and in which order to use them. Be prepared to go out of your comfort zone. For instance, you might need to sit on your knees to dine with prospective business partners in Japan.

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