International business travel will be one of the most exciting things you might ever do in your career. Despite the thrill, adhering to etiquette in international business is extremely important. In fact, international business etiquette is so thoroughly ingrained in business travelers that books and movies frequently use the topic as plots. Anyone who has seen Lost in Translation has at least a notion of some of the cultural nuances involved in international business etiquette.
Working across countries and cultures can be tricky because there’s no universal business etiquette. Business norms in Munich are different than the rules in Tokyo. If you travel internationally for business often, it’s wise to research the specific customs and expectations of each destination.
However, there are six overall areas to pay attention to when doing business abroad.
Take Introductions Seriously
In many cultures, people and their relationships are much more important than they are to North American business professionals. Relationships can be even more important than the actual business issue being discussed. Learning everyone’s name and title before meetings can go a long way to showing you understand what’s important to those you’re doing business with.
Respect Business Cards
In Asian and emerging economies, business cards are an extremely important symbol. Cards are representative of the person themselves and should be treated with similar respect. In Asia (particularly Japan), business cards are always presented to someone with both hands. When you receive a business card, always read it to yourself while you are still standing in front of the person as a sign of respect—it also helps you memorize their name and title.
Be On Time
Every culture has a different standard for punctuality. For instance, in Central Europe, meetings generally begin on time. Conversely, it’s often said that in Latin American cultures, meetings frequently run late. But it’s hard to know how late is acceptable without accidentally offending someone. Regardless of where you do business, you won’t go wrong by being on time. Arriving at the appointed time shows respect to your hosts, and you can always check email or complete another task if you find yourself waiting. It’s also a good idea to clarify specific times. Dinner time in Germany might be 7 pm, but it is 10 pm in Spain. If you have questions, ask a colleague in the country.
Leaving an event early (perhaps due to jet lag or needing to complete work) can also be an unintentional sign of disrespect to the hosts, particularly in Asian cultures. A premature departure can literally be the death of a deal or a relationship. You don’t have to stay until the very end of an event, but it is best not to be the first person to leave.
Bring a Gift
Bringing a present or gift is an important way to show respect to your host. Even if gifts are not expected, bringing one will show courtesy and earn respect from your business associates. While gifts are more common in Asian cultures, they can be a great way to begin a relationship anywhere, and the Europeans—particularly Germans—and people from the Middle East are also particularly fond of receiving them.
Expect to Socialize
In Asia and Latin America, socializing outside of the office environment is critically important to building comradery and developing trust. At a minimum, you’ll be expected to have dinner with colleagues or customers. But social expectations often go far beyond just having dinner. You may be expected to go out to bars or nightclubs, go golfing or attend other social activities. Your participation in those activities is an important factor as colleagues assess your trustworthiness for business matters.
If you are uncertain about cultural norms in certain settings, carefully observe your hosts and co-workers while following their lead. International business travel can be some of the most rewarding experiences of your career. A little research can help you get the most out of it.