Tips for Business Etiquette Abroad

When it comes to business etiquette abroad, there is no way to reliably present a single way of doing things that will please every international business person you need to work with. Instead, it’s important to understand your counterpart’s culture and to flex to meet their expectations. By acting in accordance with the business customs of the host country when you do business abroad, you are demonstrating respect for their methods and for their management team in turn, including the person you’re dealing with directly. This is especially important if your meeting is with a high ranking executive or a successful entrepreneur.

Attitudes toward time are some of the most variable parts of business etiquette abroad. In some countries, like Germany, strict adherence to meeting start times and formality are the norm. It is considered rude to be late, to force the meeting to run late or to run off-agenda. Similar punctuality is common in Japan, and like Germany, there are many business formalities, but they are their own. Japanese management practices lead to meetings that are less strictly agenda-oriented, but efficient use of time is still important, as is a demonstration of respect for the other party. Remember when doing business in Japan, the local custom is to accept business cards with two hands and a slight bow.

South Africa provides the starkest counterpart available to the attitudes toward time that are valued in Germany and Japan. There, it is routine for meetings to start as late as two hours after they are originally scheduled. The good news is that if you run into any travel trouble that slows you down, the expectations that any party might be off-schedule are reciprocal. It’s not a great idea to keep someone waiting if you’re trying to close a deal, but it isn’t going to be viewed as poorly in South Africa as in most other countries. By contrast, Mexican business culture values the time of the host, but only the time of the host. Your counterpart is considered politely on time as long as the delay is a half-hour or less, and it is not considered impolite to reschedule to the next day.

This kind of obstacle can be irritating if you’re used to a more punctual business atmosphere, especially since you are expected to be punctual in case your host is. Still, showing irritation in this situation is the local equivalent of asserting out loud that your business with your counterpart is more important than the management of their role in their company, and that does not leave a good impression if you’re trying to work a deal. Before you allow your irritation to the surface when you find customs at odds with your own, consider how your counterparts practice business etiquette abroad and what changes they make to show you respect when they deal in your home country.

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