International business travel can be one of the more exciting aspects of a job. While different types of business travelers may not feel the same about wanting to travel internationally, most would probably agree that there are certain challenges that are specific to working with international groups. One of those challenges is ensuring that communication is clear.
It's no secret that business customs vary across the globe. You don't always have to travel far to notice that difference, either. Because it is getting easier to network and partner with groups around the world, knowledge of business etiquette can set you apart from other groups. Plus, it's good practice to be aware of these things.
Here are a few business customs and etiquette tips to keep in mind when working with international groups.
1. Greeting Styles
While the air kiss is sometimes used once a relationship has been established, the safest way to greet someone is usually through a handshake. It's often expected, especially from North Americans. However, how firm your handshake is can make or break a good impression.
According to CT Business Travel, the people of France, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan prefer a soft handshake versus a firm one.
Two hands are needed if handing out a business card to a person from an Asian country.
Place both hands together with palms up to form a sort of cup. Then place the card in the middle for the person to grab. Always thank the person for their card, especially when working with people from Japan and other Asian countries.
Additionally, most countries expect a formal greeting (i.e., Mr., Ms., etc., followed by their surname). While some countries, such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Sweden, don't mind a greeting of first names, I still recommend greeting people by surname until they inform you otherwise.
While there are places that are more casual than others, attire in an initial meeting should always be professional. I personally recommend avoiding business casual when first meeting a potential client, only because what they might consider to be casual may actually be quite formal for North Americans.
For instance, in Japan you are more likely to see people in suits and in dresses with heels, at least in the business sector. Interestingly, the casual clothing is also more tailored and put together. It's better to be overdressed than underdressed.
Obviously, this may vary in regards to the job you are doing. When in doubt, stick to a classic look -- usually slacks, a button-up top, and a fitted jacket.
3. Business Meetings
One of the biggest lessons I have learned is to follow their lead in business meetings. Some cultures like to make small talk, like in Italy, some cultures don't. Some cultures will always start right on time, such as in Australia and Germany, while others will usually start later than scheduled.
You may even be put to the test. In Russia, people are expected to be there right on time. However, the Russians will join you when they are ready and not a moment sooner.
Another aspect to consider is whether you're allowed to interject during a business meeting. In some cultures, not saying anything is seen as a sign of not knowing what is going on. In other cultures, not saying anything until addressed is a sign of respect.
Again, the best way to approach is to follow along. Just be careful not to steamroll the meeting.
This will vary from place to place. When in the Middle East and India, only eat with your right hand. Also, when in India, be aware of what you choose to eat, as many people follow a vegetarian diet. In Brazil and some of the Latin countries, expect a meal to last more than an hour.
In South Korea, expect to visit a karaoke establishment after dinner. It is customary to give Chinese business people a gift, which they will refuse to accept. However, you must offer it to them three times for them to finally feel that they can accept it.
5. Personal Space
Again, this is one that may make you uncomfortable, but you will do best by following their lead. In Brazil and some South American countries, standing extremely close is common. The same can be said in some European countries.
Resist the urge to step back, as it may come across as insecure and disrespectful. Instead, have mints on hand and embrace the differences in culture.