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  1. Wealth
March 26, 2019

An expert’s guide to international business etiquette

By Spear's

Matrimonial consultant and family lawyer Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart offers some insights on international business etiquette

When it comes to international business etiquette, there is one overarching rule: when in a foreign country, do as they do! ‘Cultural intelligence’ is a must to gain trust, build strong personal relationships and to secure successful business outcomes on an international scale. By amassing a good working knowledge of regional business and social etiquettes, you will avoid the common miscommunications and misunderstandings that can jeopardise successful business deals.

Preparation is key

To ensure a smooth foreign business trip, one must invest time into learning about the region’s customs, history and culture. Being well versed in a country’s political system, current affairs, sports and business achievements is necessary. Littering one’s conversations and presentations with praises for patriotism and recounting national heroes, sports figures and famous business people is a good way to show your local knowledge and build goodwill. It will also provide a ready supply of useful talking points should the small talk run dry.

Meet and greets

On first meeting, pay careful attention to the greeting language and behaviour used by your client or foreign business colleague, as well as the physical distance they keep between people.

There are three different greetings used around the world; the handshake, the kiss and the bow. In Arab countries, kissing is common, even amongst men. Bows are the most frequent form of greeting in Japan as a sign of respect. Men should bow slightly placing their arms at the side whilst women should cross their hands in front.

The handshake is still the most common form of greeting globally, but the intensity of the handshake differs between countries. Strong handshakes are the norm in the US, Japan and Germany, but in Asia handshakes tend to be less firm and they are often accompanied by a slight nod of the head, especially when meeting senior people. There are several countries where women do not shake men’s hands so to avoid confusion, a British woman should extend her hand first to indicate it is alright to shake hands.

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The power of communication

Conversing fluently in thee native language when doing business abroad will often give you a competitive advantage. But if not, always try to speak a few well-chosen native phrases as it shows your willingness to engage and builds personal rapport. Chinese business professionals in particular appreciate attempts to communicate in Mandarin so simple phrases like nĭ hăo (hello, for all times of the day), xièxie (thank you) and zàijiàn (goodbye) are generally applauded.

You will also encounter noticeable differences in conversational styles and negotiations in different regions. In Asian countries with strong Chinese populations for instance, business is conducted in a very polite manner, so you must avoid direct use of the word ‘no’ during business no’ or personalising a comment during business negotiations as it is considered rude and a loss of ‘face’as it is considered rude. Also, be aware of using self-deprecating humour, a very common British trait to laugh at one’s shortcomings, as it is not often understood globally where one’s rising status in the workplace comes with an expectation of confidence.  If you are unsure of the conventional communication style, then observe native businessmen and women and adjust your style accordingly.

Titles of address

When making formal introductions, it’s important to use the correct titles. In more traditional and formal cultures like Japan, Korea and China, it is more respectful to address a person by their job title followed by their surname in the style of “Professor Ng”. Take care to enquire about gender and surname pronunciation in advance.

Another point of note is that Chinese surnames come before the first name so with the name Lee Shui Han, Lee is the surname and Shui Han is the first name. The correct way to address this person is Miss Lee, not Miss Han. In Asia, married women also tend to keep their maiden names, so don’t assume that their title is Mrs If you are introduced to a woman as “Ming Li”, it is best to refer to her as Ms Ming unless otherwise directed.


Professional and personal gestures can cause embarrassment if you are not savvy with native interpretations. Gifts (omiyage, or honourable presents) are considered a precursor to business partnerships in Japan but can be considered a bribe and may be met with unease in other countries, so do brush up on the correct custom and learn to do it right.

With gift-giving, Westerners tend to focus on the usage of the gifts they offer but Easterners place a strong emphasis on symbolism and use gifts with a local cultural connection. In China, avoid gifting clocks, white flowers or giving gifts in fours as they have negative connotations. In cultures such as South Korea and Taiwan, gifts are generally not opened in front of the giver so if in doubt, don’t open the gift immediately.

Meetings and business dealings

Punctuality is a fluid concept in international business with some cultures more relaxed on timekeeping than other. As a rule of thumb, the Germans are notorious for their rigidity unlike the Africans and Saudi Arabians where delays are commonplace especially when meeting a high ranking official. When scheduling meetings, bear in mind differences in working times and days. In the Middle East, the working week is Saturday to Thursday, whilst in Spain mid-afternoon siestas is the norm.

The time taken to conclude business deals also varies greatly across cultures. Unlike the West, business decisions in China and Japan are made as a group rather than individually, so their decision-making process can be lengthier. Often, business deals and negotiation take place over a meal and it might not be until the 3rd or 4th meal that the begins to take shape. Hurrying any decision making usually counter-counter-productive so patience is key.

Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart
  a Matrimonial Consultant, Relationship Guru and founder of  

Twitter: @sheelamac

LinkedIn: Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart

Facebook: @sheelamackintoshstewar

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