Know your global business etiquette? Build client relationships across cultures

When interacting with clients from different cultures, there are countless nuances to be aware of. But by being sensitive and making a few adjustments in how you communicate and behave, you’ll be on the way to creating and sustaining great relationships.

Having worked with people from all over the world in the international cities of Montreal and Dubai, I’ve got a few tips to get you started:

Giving and receiving business cards

Knowing how to treat the business card is essential. For most Westerners, this small piece of paper doesn’t carry much value – we can give it a second’s glance before scribbling on it or shoving it into our wallets. But in some other cultures, how you handle a business card is a big marker of respect.

In Asian or Arab countries, you must use your right hand when receiving a card, since the left hand is considered ‘unclean’. In areas such as China, Japan and Singapore, however, it’s the custom to give or receive a business card with both hands.

As a best practice, if you’re unsure of the cultural nuances, treat everything you receive from business partners with a certain level of respect to prevent any misunderstandings.

Personal space

In some cultures, personal space isn’t so important and standing too far away or acting in a reserved manner can be seen as cold or standoffish. Elsewhere, though, invading someone’s personal space comes across as aggressive and intrusive.

In most Western countries, we prefer to stay outside someone else’s imaginary ‘bubble’ – you’ll see this in action when waiting in queues, standing in elevators or sitting in meeting rooms. In countries such as Italy, however, a hug or pat on the back is perfectly fine as a greeting between work associates.

Arab men, meanwhile, sometimes engage in nose rubbing when they meet.

In general, a handshake is the safest thing to go by, wherever you are in the world. But be aware of cultural nuances when greeting the opposite gender – for some, touching of any kind is inappropriate and shows disrespect to a person’s religious beliefs.

Differences in communication

Being loud and assertive is seen as a sign of strength in some cultures, while in others, raising your voice ­– even when excited – is considered ill-mannered and abrasive. This also applies to interrupting someone during a meeting versus waiting until they are done speaking. In some parts of the world, people are also typically soft-spoken, use flowery or indirect language and wait patiently for others to finish their sentences.

During a business meeting, these differences are likely to come to the forefront. You’ll need to adjust to the way your business partners communicate, for example when addressing and greeting your business partners, your boss and your colleagues. Always use last names and titles unless invited to do so otherwise.

Hierarchies can greatly influence the communication style in your new surroundings, so you’d be wise to keep an eye on this, too. The most senior business partner might be the one making decisions at a meeting. Failing to acknowledge their status within the company or greeting them with due respect can leave a bad impression, so watch out for this.

Valuing time

Punctuality is another key area where cultures can differ. Most of us agree that Germans are well known for being on time, but in many African and South American countries, scheduled appointments are treated as a general guideline rather than something to follow strictly.

It’s always best to be punctual at first and simultaneously adopt a relaxed attitude towards time management. Even if you’re always on time, your business partners may not take doing this as seriously as you do. Just learn to adapt to their unique pace at work.

Here are some top-line tips on business cultures by country:

Britain

  • Be formal in initial business settings
  • Punctuality is an absolute must
  • Avoid small talk and get straight to the point or purpose of your meeting
  • Use complete sentences and avoid the kind of slang terms North Americans might use
  • When negotiating, ensure the most senior person possible from your organisation is managing the process

Japan

  • Whether you’re male or female, dress for meetings in a suit. Casual attire is not appreciated in business settings
  • Punctuality is imperative
  • If you receive a gift, don’t open it in front of your host and always bring a gift as a token of appreciation
  • Wait to be seated, as seating arrangements are often dictated by title and seniority. Don’t stand up in a meeting until the leader of the meeting does so

Spain

  • Though considered a more relaxed business culture, meetings typically start with a handshake. A kiss on the cheek is not uncommon
  • Meetings are often held face to face and initially focus on building personal relationships before getting into the nitty gritty of business deals
  • Timings and punctuality are quite laid back, so don’t be offended if your business counterpart isn’t on time
  • Expect and accept interruptions during a meeting – this a cultural norm

China

  • The biggest thing to know here is the value of ‘saving face’. Don’t call your counterpart out on anything they might not be right about – this could break your business relationship
  • Avoid being blunt and saying “no”, even if what you’re being asked is a clear no-no. Use terms such as “maybe” or “I’ll look into it”
  • Small talk is important. Focus on topics such as travel and what you know about China
  • Use gold ink for your business cards – this signifies prosperity and success. For any other printed materials, use black and white. Many colours have meaning in Chinese culture
  • Be on time. Punctuality is a requisite

India

  • Be punctual, but don’t expect your business counterpart to be on time
  • The main language used for business is English
  • Share business cards in both professional and social settings
  • Hierarchy is very important, so be prepared to rise and greet the leader of a business
  • Bear in mind that Indian business culture is still very male-centric. Expect to take a bit longer to win over someone’s trust if you’re a businesswoman.

Italy

  • Family values and relationships are very important. Italians like to know someone before engaging in business
  • Introduce yourself and share personal aspects about your life before jumping into business matters
  • Dress well – cuff links, watches and jewellery are a sign of elegance and status
  • Be sure to stand close to the person you’re speaking with
  • Use eye contact to gain trust
  • Remember that patience is valued when doing business in Italy

Germany

  • Punctuality is of the utmost importance. Arrive just ahead of time for meetings
  • It’s common to shake hands at both the beginning and end of a meeting
  • Germans tend to be more blunt when communicating, so expect them to be very direct in business settings.

Middle East

  • As personal and professional life often meld together, personal contact and face-to-face communication is key in establishing trust
  • For many Arabs, a potential business partner must also be considered a potential friend
  • Avoid doing business over email or telephone. Organise in-person meetings instead
  • Learn some simple Arabic greetings to establish a friendly connection with whoever you’re meeting
  • Handshakes are the typical form of physical greeting, but wait for the other person to withdraw his/her hand before you do
  • If you’re a man greeting an Arab businesswoman, wait for her to extend her hand – some women won’t shake hands with men because of their religious or cultural beliefs
  • If you’re a woman meeting an Arab businessman, wait for them to initiate the handshake. Otherwise, it’s best not to extend your hand
  • Accept that the concept of punctuality is very different here. Don’t be surprised if your counterpart is up to half an hour late, sometimes longer. However, you as the visitor should show up on time as a sign of respect
  • Interruptions are common, so expect other people to enter the meeting room. This has become even more widespread since the advent of smartphones
  • Take copies of any printed information, business plans, or brochures. It’s quite possible that the person you’re speaking with is not the real decision-maker in the company, and your materials will need to be shared with more senior people after the meeting.

A final note …

Wherever you travel to or whoever you choose to conduct business with, it’s a good idea to do your research and ask friends or colleagues who may be from the same region. Showing a level of interest in and consideration for another person’s culture is generally welcomed and will help to pave a smooth transition into a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship.

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  1. Sabrina says:

    Thought provoking and good guide to understanding the nuances of different cultural mindsets!

  2. More Help says:

    Valuable information. Fortunate me I discovered your website by chance, and I’m shocked why this twist of fate did not took place earlier! I bookmarked it.

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