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Business Etiquette Abroad

Business Etiquette Abroad

"Etiquette would not seem to play an important part in business, and yet no man can ever tell when its knowledge may be of advantage, or its lack may turn the scale against him." -- Emily Post, 1922

Although the face of business has changed drastically since 1922, when Emily Post wrote the words above, the secret power of etiquette is just as relevant today. Even in the US, where unspoken values about manners are nearly innate, it is frighteningly easy to offend. But overseas, where the proverbial scales may be calibrated in the metric system or may be spring loaded, you must be particularly attentive to etiquette, or risk unintentionally offending someone.

With today's advanced communication technology and global marketplace, the workplace is becoming more international in nature, and local customs seem to have less sway. But the lightning speed of globalization can be deceptive -- the office environment is thoroughly influenced by the local culture, even in multinational companies. Cultural differences manifest in all aspects of life overseas, but in a few areas they are especially pronounced. Throughout the world, attitudes about time management, personal space, gift giving, humor and food vary enormously. In order to make a good impression on a potential business partner overseas, it is critical to have some understanding of the way in which these topics are treated in the country. Below are a few tidbits about international business etiquette that illustrate some important differences in various areas of the world.

Business Card Protocol

Who could have imagined that so much decorum would surround such small pieces of paper? Before you set off to work overseas, make sure you know the right way to slip someone a business card. In parts of the Middle East, you should never use your left hand when you offer someone a business card, while in many Asian countries, you should always use both hands. In Japan, China, Singapore and other Asian countries, you should spend several seconds studying any business card you are given, and you should never put the card in your pocket or write on it in the presence of the giver.

A Friendly Pat on the Head?

A pat on the head is not a particularly common business salutation, so it's unlikely that you will feel the urge to greet your coworkers in such a manner. But if you are ever tempted to pat someone on the head and you happen to be in Thailand, think twice. The gesture is a grave insult in the country where the top of the head is considered sacred.

Gift Giving

One of the most difficult aspects of working in another country is knowing when it is appropriate to give gifts and what is appropriate to give. In some countries, a gift is a necessary precursor to a business partnership that expresses a willingness to work together. In others, gift giving can be seen as ostentatious and inappropriate in certain circumstances.

Gifts are particularly important in Japan, but you should never give a Japanese company or individual a set of four or nine of anything, as these numbers are unlucky in Japanese culture. Around the world, the wrapping can be just as important as the gift itself. In China, you should avoid wrapping gifts in white or green paper, as they are considered unlucky colors.


Gestures vary greatly from country to country and can easily be the source of slight misunderstanding or serious offences. In Bulgaria and Albania, the gestures are so confusing that they could make your head spin: Nodding your head means no, while shaking it means yes. In Iran, you can go ahead and cross your legs if you want to. But be careful that the sole of your foot isn't facing anyone, as this would be an insult.

Moving Toward a Global Etiquette

Originally from Sri Lanka, Wipul Nanayakkara has worked in Switzerland, Malaysia and Italy and has traveled throughout the world for business. He thinks that, of the indications of a more flexible office environment, "the most important is the attitude towards change. People are very, very resistant to change."

Regardless of the degree to which change is accepted in the country where you work, it is important to familiarize yourself with the fine points of the local business etiquette. Yet if for some reason you find that you have committed a seemingly dire offense, it may not be the end of the world -- or even the interview, as this story illustrates.

Nanayakkara explains that in Sri Lanka, it is generally not acceptable to drink or smoke in front of your boss. But his American friend, "a very outspoken type of guy" who had been working in Malaysia, applied for a position at an investment firm in Sri Lanka. At the last round of the interview process, he was invited to a dinner with the nine other candidates. "Everyone at the dinner was offered a drink,” Nanayakkara says. “Nobody would take one except him, because he thought he wouldn't be selected anyway. So he took a drink, and he was selected." Evidently, some rules of office etiquette are open to change.

Learn more about international careers.

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