Making the perfect first impression – Business culture and etiquette overseas


We’ve all heard the horror stories of business people making cultural faux pas in other countries, from failing to follow the custom around greetings, to wrongly interpreted hand gestures and giving an inappropriate gift.

So if your organisation is looking to export to a new overseas market, you’ll want to make a good impression – and this means understanding business culture and etiquette in that country or region.

Why is business etiquette important?

Business etiquette establishes a framework for everyone to work around. It creates an environment in which a diverse bunch of people can work together and collaborate, allowing people to focus on the work in hand without any misunderstandings. Conforming to a region’s business etiquette is a sign of professionalism, a willingness to do business, a respect for that country’s culture and sensitivities, and a desire to make a positive impression.

Unfortunately, as we can see in the examples above there are no international business etiquette rules enshrined in stone. Instead approaches to business vary greatly across different countries and regions are can be heavily influenced by culture, customs and traditions. Factor in religious and political beliefs too, and you can understand why it’s so important to get a good handle on a country’s business culture if you want to succeed in that region.

What factors should you be aware of?

Just to confuse matters, globalisation has resulted in some practices (particularly western) being adopted in other regions. For example, greeting other businesspeople from different cultures can be a minefield. Do you shake hands, kiss on both cheeks, or even go in for a bear hug? It can lead to some very awkward situations where no one really knows what to do.

Greetings aside, some other factors to consider include:

Punctuality – being on time is viewed as essential in some countries but too eager in others.

Seniority and hierarchies – who sits down first, who leaves last, who leads discussions?

Physical contact and physical proximity – in some countries people’s personal space is not an issue whereas in others getting too close is inappropriate.

Gift giving – many cultures expect an exchange of gifts, often from both parties or at least from guest to host. In other regions gifts may be misconstrued as a bribe and therefore it’s essential to know what’s acceptable.

Dress code – fortunately we do have the professional uniform of “the suit”, which transcends most borders. However, knowing when it’s appropriate to remove your tie or roll up your sleeves is useful knowledge, especially when working in an overseas office.

Cultural taboos – many taboos will have religious or political associations; a good understanding of a country’s ethnicity, history and political outlook will help you avoid any potentially embarrassing errors.

Xenophobia – some overseas markets will be harder to do business in because of attitudes towards foreigners. An awareness of this and some expert advice on how to reach out and overcome these difficulties is essential.

Ethics – you’ll also need to understand the standards that are expected of businesses in your chosen country. Factors such as corporate social responsibility are important in some regions, and of course many countries take a very strong stance on corruption and bribery.

How to get guidance on business etiquette in your chosen region

As always the Internet has a wealth of information about doing business in overseas markets. As a first step search GOV.UK’s Exporting country guides for an overview of the challenges, potential for growth and opportunities in your chosen region. UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) has plenty of online resources for companies looking to grow their business abroad, as well as practical support through their export services.

If you’d like insights into any particular country or region, particularly in respect to translating business communications in an appropriate and culturally sensitive way, please get in touch on or call us on + 44 (0) 1926 335 681.

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