Business travel etiquette: What you need to know

Travelling – and conducting business – in a global society has its risks. Differences in culture and social customs can all too easily become stumbling blocks in developing a productive business relationship or an important networking opportunity.

For North American business travellers looking to negotiate in another country, here are some pointers from experts on how to avoid a costly cultural faux paus.

Introduction rituals

When greeting others it is important to follow a country’s rituals for introductions.

In China, for example, people will state the names of their companies before giving their own names, Tom Russell, publisher of Random House’s Living Language Business Companion series told CNN.

“If you are asked to identify yourself, state the name of your company rather than your own name because your company often gets more respect,” Russell says.

The typical North American greeting – a handshake – is by no means universal. In Japan, for instance, you are expected to bow. And in France, the air kiss is customary.

When meeting others, personal space is alsoa consideration. In North America, “public space” ranges from 12 – 15 feet and “social space” is between 4 – 10 feet, according to But in Saudi Arabia, social space is roughly the same as our intimate space, which ranges out to one foot. On the other hand, in the Netherlands, the opposite is true, with a personal space custom of 4 to 10 feet.

Experts say it is important to research any sensitive cultural differences in greeting others as well as learning some key phrases in your host country’s language.

Business card etiquette

The exchange of business cards is considered important to most cultures. In fact, in many Asian countries, a business card is considered an extension of an individual and is treated with profound respect.

After a person has introduced him or herself and bowed, the ceremony of presenting a business card begins. In Japan, this is called meishi. When presenting a business card, etiquette demands the card be facing upward, with the top facing the recipient. To demonstrate respect to the other person, you should offer your business card with both hands, holding the top corners of the card.

When receiving a card, you should be cautious not to bend, fold or write on it as this would be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. It is also considered impolite to look at the card again after you’ve first accepted and looked at it.

Experts also recommend:

• Having your business card translated to the language of the country you’re visiting. Avoid embarrassment by making sure it is translated correctly.

• Keep the design simple. Since colours have different meanings across various cultures, it is safer to keep with common white, black and cream colours.

No joking

In North America, it is not unusual to open up your presentation with an ice-breaking joke, but this is not always a good idea in another country.

In Germany, for example, business is considered a serious matter and an inappropriate arena for joking around. And while the British and the French tend to enjoy comedy, humour does not always translate. Not surprisingly, it is always advisable to stay away from jokes about politics, gender, or religion.

As with appreciation of humour, negotiating tactics vary from culture to culture. While the Japanese typically employ silence as a tactic in meetings and tend to avoid making decisions on the spot, Latin businessmen and women often engage in long and vigorous negotiations, according to experts.

Use of slang

Using slang can be risky in a business environment. For example, in some European countries “word of mouth” roughly translates to “mouth to mouth.” And in some South African dialects keeping someone “in the loop” means keeping that person pregnant.

If you’re planning a business trip abroad, it may be useful to refer to an international slang dictionary at

The business lunch

At what time during a lunch is it appropriate to discuss business? Should you clean your plate or not? It is important to do your homework even for the seemingly uncomplicated task of taking a meal.

Cultural differences often include the use of utensils. In some countries, you will be expected to peel your fruit with a knife and eat it with a fork. You may also be expected to use utensils when you eat a sandwich as it is considered poor taste to pick up some foods using your hands. And be sure to use chopsticks in countries that use them.

As for when to broach business matters, this also varies by country. In France, for example, it is considered taboo to discuss business at all during a meal. But in Germany, it is acceptable to bring up business during the last course. When in doubt, follow your host’s lead.

What not to wear

In many European countries, business attire is sophisticated and formal. In Italy, for example, your clothing is perceived as a reflection of your social standing and success, as well as your competence as a businessperson.

Business casual, which has become popular in North America in recent years, is not appropriate in many countries. As with other cultural matters, be sure to do your research before packing your bag.

For more information, see


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