Technology means it’s quicker and easier than ever before to conduct business on a global scale, but businesses looking to expand or forge partnerships abroad must still be mindful of cultural traditions.
As Chloe Ravat, communications manager at Lufthansa’s Fly Partner Plus Benefit says, “Observing cultural differences demonstrates a versatile and malleable approach to business – something which contacts and customers may be very keen on. If your business appears to be incredibly adaptable, it increases its value to a wider range of clients. Plus, if you demonstrate adaptability and respect, it is likely you’ll be seen to be more trustworthy.”
Yet UK businesses sometimes fall short. “One of the biggest issues I see from British business travellers is a lack of understanding about the host country and bowling into a new culture without adequate preparation, offending everyone in their path,” says Paul Russell, director of business etiquette training company Luxury Academy London.
Causing offence or showing disrespect – even unintentionally – can be enough to jeopardise future business. Russell himself has almost fallen foul on occasion: “In the early days of Luxury Academy, I was invited into the home of a client in Brunei. I was about to graciously decline thinking this was the type of off-hand remark we make in the UK, but thankfully my local guide accepted on my behalf. Had I declined, it would have ended our business relationship there and then!”
Clearly, it pays to do your homework before you take business abroad. Here are our top tips for the UK’s biggest trading partners.
Australians have a reputation for being laidback and aloof, and much of that translates into business culture. Decision making can be slower due to their collaborative nature and they have a tendency to underplay their own successes.
That said, they say what they mean and are generally more individual and outgoing than other cultures. When it comes to business they’re straightforward and direct, appreciate factual information and don’t care for ‘the hard sell’.
Brazilians are friendly and both body language and verbal communication will be effusive and gregarious. According to Russell: “In the UK we are quite restrained in physical connections with those we work with, sticking with a handshake, but in Brazil it would be quite normal to illustrate your point with a touch on the hand or a hand on the shoulder.”
But as Ravat notes, many businesses fall foul of the same issue in Brazil. “There is an unfortunate misconception that Spanish is the first language of Brazil, however it is Portuguese. If you want to make a good impression by learning the lingo, make sure you pick the correct language!”
Canada is a vast country and specific customs vary between each region, but everywhere great importance is given to respecting opinions. Regardless of rank and status, people expect the right to be heard and listened to, and decisions are not usually made until all the facts are at hand.
Canada is officially bilingual in French and English and in the province of Québec there are very stringent French-language requirements for all commercial endeavours. Your business card should have both French and English translations.
🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates
Appointments should be made several weeks in advance as a sign of respect, and morning meetings are generally preferred, although they’re rarely private and it’s common for interruptions to occur. Working hours are usually 8am-1pm and 4pm-7pm due to the extreme heat in the middle of the day.
Avoid overly-firm handshakes, which are considered dominant or disrespectful, and handshakes with Muslim women, unless initiated by them. Keep conversation polite and avoid sensitive topics – especially politics – at all costs.
Ravat also notes that it can be helpful to ask your hotel concierge or host for directions. “The city [of Dubai] is developing so quickly that many new buildings and roads are not on maps or tuned into sat-nav systems yet”.
According to Russell, Indian business is all about the personal connection. “When we opened our first office in India, we mistakenly tried to operate as we do in the UK, often at the end of a phone line, but in India they needed this face to face interaction as a precursor to doing business.”
Indians are warm and welcoming, but be careful if conducting business with the opposite sex. “It is frowned upon for men to shake hands with women in many Indian societies,” says Ravat. “A simple spoken greeting should suffice.”
In Indonesia it’s normal for Indonesians to enter a conference or meeting room according to rank, and while you’re not expected to do the same, doing so presents a good impression.
They’re not rash decision makers, so by Western standards business dealings can be slow – relationships must be allowed to grow over time.
Be aware of the concept of ‘malu’, which means social embarrassment or loss of face. Instigating this can be hugely damaging to business relationships.
Dress is also critical, and men should wear a suit and jacket while women should observe and respect Muslim rules of modesty.
Punctuality is unpredictable and meetings often spontaneous and peppered with phone calls and interruptions – this is normal and shouldn’t be interpreted as rude.
Their working style is often collaborative, and the concept of hierarchy almost non-existent – everyone is given the opportunity to voice their opinion.
Listening is valued very highly in Japan, so be careful never to interrupt – something which is considered unacceptable. There’s also a strong adherence to rank in the Japanese business world, and it’s important for visitors to show due deference.
Ravat adds: “In Japan, tipping is considered to be very rude, to the extent that it is important to wait for even a small amount of change, whether you’re eating at a restaurant, buying a coffee or paying a taxi driver.”
Mexicans are largely sociable, friendly and warm – don’t be surprised if they talk openly and frankly about emotions, family and personal issues, and don’t be alarmed by an affectionate touch on the arm during conversation, as this indicates a relationship has been established.
Aim to make appointments between 10am and 1pm, or late in the afternoon, and avoid using someone’s first name until invited to do so.
Filipinos are a proud people and strive to maintain a sense of propriety – challenging this will certainly jeopardise future business interactions, so be careful with behaviours that could be construed as confrontational such constructive criticism (no matter how well-meaning).
Business culture here is very mindful of power hierarchies, which means subordinates have no qualms over accepting orders and generally refer to their higher-ups as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ instead of their first name.
Food is a huge part of Filipino culture so expect meetings to take place over a meal. They’re not comfortable with small talk, but will often greet you with ‘Kain!’ which means ‘Let’s eat!’
Micha Rose Emmett, CEO of CS Global Partners which specialises in residency and citizenship, has worked extensively with partners in Russia and says that gifts are often appreciated by Russian connections, such as an item from your home country or something displaying your company logo.
He adds: “It is considered polite for guests to attempt to speak some Russian as this exhibits interest in local culture. This also applies to business cards – a business card that is translated into Russian shows dedication to doing business in the country.
“Punctuality is important on a guest’s part, but your Russian counterpart may be late – waiting is a demonstration of your willingness to do business together.”
Punctuality is vitally important in Singapore and meetings should be direct and to the point. Joking or being humorous should only be done if you’ve already built a solid relationship.
During a meal, allow your host to order all the dishes: trusting in their judgment to serve the group as a whole demonstrates respect. Never share leftovers, and always eat with utensils in your right hand, as the left hand is seen as ‘unclean’.
The traditional Thai greeting of the ‘wai’ should be used when greeting someone of equal or superior status: place your hands in prayer position then touch them to your head, accompanied by a small bow.
Hierarchy is important in Thailand, so actions can take a while as decisions are usually made only by people at the top.
Avoid touching or getting close to someone’s head, as the head is viewed as the most sacred part of the body. As in many Asian countries, avoid passing things with your left hand, showing the soles of your feet, and pointing, all of which are considered rude.
The US may seem familiar to many, but it’s a country that still surprises businesses. Expect a ‘can-do’, future-orientated attitude and a focus on hard work – taking time away from work, even for a few days, is often regarded with suspicion.
Americans are usually informal and friendly as soon as you meet them, and often louder and more exuberant than many cultures, but aggressiveness in the workplace is often considered to be a positive attribute. Pushing, forcing and openly disagreeing are communication styles often seen as leadership qualities, especially against competitive businesses.
To make every business trip a success, preparation is key. Becoming accustomed with the cultural traditions of the country you are travelling to and understanding how you will manage your expenses whilst you are there are almost important as remembering to pack your passport.
For more tips on how to plan for you and your company’s business trips, read more of our Travelling for Business posts. And to understand how you can take the hassle out of managing your expenses as you travel, find out more about the FairFX Prepaid Corporate Mastercard®.
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