Cross Cultural Business Etiquette

Learning the Ins and Outs of Global Business

Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette - Learning the Ins and Outs of Global Business

© iStockphoto

Learn to be successful in an international business environment.

Imagine this: you walk into your local Wal-Mart and see a pool filled with live turtles, cages of live chickens, and an aquarium with live fish. Are you in the pet department? No, you're in the grocery section – these animals are for your dinner!

In Western culture, this would be shocking. You might even see protests, or consumer outrage. But in Eastern cultures, this is typical. Why? Wal-Mart conducted market research before expanding into China, and discovered that people in these cultures don't like food wrapped in plastic. It gives them the impression that the food is old, and they won't buy it.

So, Wal-Mart's solution for the East was the complete opposite of what they do in the West. They decided to sell live animals. As a result, the company has been very successful in Eastern markets.

International Differences

This is one example of just how different our cultures can be. People often talk about how the world is getting "smaller," thanks to travel and technology. But the reality is that, even though we interact with different cultures more than ever, there are still major differences between countries. People often think differently, conduct business differently, and have different expectations. This makes living in a diverse world so interesting. However, it makes doing business a bit challenging – especially if you're not prepared. What's normal in your country might be a serious mistake elsewhere.

Are you about to do business in another country? We'll show you some of the benefits of understanding the business culture – and we'll offer tips on things like dress, conversation, and social customs.

It's important to realize that the following tips are general directions only. Are there exceptions to these rules? Absolutely. Use these tips as guidelines, but always listen to your local adviser whenever you're in a new country.

Business Cultures

When Easterners come to a Western country (like the United Kingdom or the United States) for the first time, they might be shocked at just how fast things move. A business deal that would take weeks or months in their country might take only a few days in the West.

The differences can be substantial, mostly because the ways in which these two regions conduct business are extremely different. In the East, business usually depends on relationships. Entire teams are involved in the decision making process, and things rarely move quickly.

In the West, people usually act more as individuals. They might make decisions quickly, and they often don't have to consult their entire team for agreement. They're far more likely to take risks to achieve the things they want.

Different countries have different value systems, and these are key indicators of how business is conducted. Places like India and Far Eastern countries tend to value the group above the individual, whereas the U.S. and New Zealand tend to value the individual above all else.


For more on different thinking styles in different countries, see our article on Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions.

This is why it's worth understanding the overall culture of a country before you go there. You don't have to know all the little details, but learn the basics. At the least, this can help ensure that you don't do something to insult your hosts or damage your reputation – and, in the bigger picture, it can help you succeed.

It also helps you prepare for what you're about to do. If you're going to a South American country, and you know that they tend to do business mainly with people they like and trust, then you'll be more open and friendly when you arrive. If you're traveling to Germany, and you know that many German people like to see hard data before reaching a decision, then you can come to your first meeting prepared with enough evidence to convince them.


Deciding what to wear when you're on business in a foreign country can be difficult. Get it right, and you'll be accepted. Get it wrong, and you could lose respect – or even lose the deal you're trying to close.

Free "Build a Positive Team" Toolkit

When you join the Mind Tools Club before midnight PST September 27

Find out more

In some countries, the clothes you wear don't mean much at all. In others, clothes can make a powerful statement about who you are. Know the attitudes in the country you'll visit. This is critical to knowing how to dress.

Here are some examples:

  • United States – Here, business dress is generally formal on the East Coast, but much more casual on the West Coast. However, be sure to check on the company you're visiting – many have changed to "business casual" dress.
  • Japan – It's best to dress conservatively, no matter which region of Japan you visit. Men should wear dark suits and ties, and women should have very minimal jewelry and makeup.
  • Colombia – This is the exact opposite of Japan. Because of their warm climate, business dress is much more casual. Colombians tend to notice detail, and they WILL notice what you're wearing. In this country, it's best to dress professionally, but with style.
  • Spain – Spaniards can be all about status. They want to see top-quality, conservative clothing. Brand names and designers are important here, so spending more on your wardrobe will probably be noticed. Women business travelers should not show a lot of skin – even outside of work. Remember, be elegant and conservative.
  • China – Avoid bright colors. Suits should be dark and conservative. Women are advised to wear flatter shoes, not high heels.


The art of conversation can be tricky in a new country. Often, what you don't say is just as important as what you do say, and different cultures approach conversation in very different ways.

Consider these examples:

  • Switzerland – Swiss people can often be quite quiet. They're excellent listeners, and they remember almost everything that you tell them. It's wise, however, not to ask them personal questions about their lives, occupations, religions, or families. They tend to be private and reserved, and they open up only after they've known you for a while.
  • Chile – Chileans can be the exact opposite. They love talking about themselves, and a great way to establish relationships is to become familiar with their country's history. Chileans are often very patriotic, and you'll be a popular guest if you show some knowledge about their past and their economy.
  • United States – It's common for Americans to ask people what they do for a living. In many countries, this is considered an offensive question – but here, it's a typical conversation starter. Generally, Americans love to laugh, and a great way to establish a connection with people is to tell jokes, especially about work-related issues. However, avoid any jokes about gender, religion, or politics.

Social Customs

Here's where things can get really tricky. When you meet someone, do you kiss, bow, or shake hands? This is a confusing question, and it's the title of Terri Morrison's book, "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands", which we strongly recommend to readers operating in an international environment.

For example, don't arrive in Romania without a gift – it's considered insulting. Your hosts will present you with one, and Ms. Morrison recommends that you bring something from your own country to give to them.

It's also important to know that in China, business cards are extremely important. When you receive a business card, accept it with both hands, and DON'T immediately put it in your pocket. This is seen as disrespectful. Instead, take a few seconds to look at it carefully, and then place it in a business card holder.

And what about punctuality? In countries like the United States, Germany, and Japan, it's rude to be late. In Saudi Arabia, however, it's expected.

Key Points

Although you probably won't have time to study every small cultural detail of the country you're about to visit, it's crucial that you at least become familiar with their customs. Don't arrive without any idea of how to present yourself. This can show a lack of courtesy, and it could risk the business you're about to conduct.

Know what your hosts expect in the boardroom, know how to dress, and spend some time learning a few words in their native language. Your hosts will notice your preparation, and your efforts will be appreciated.