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A guide to business etiquette around the world

Doing business on an international scale has almost become the new norm. Today, it’s not only long-standing conglomerates that travel abroad to make business deals or sell products to other countries. Thanks to the internet, even the smallest businesses are obtaining international clients. Stay on top of this shift by learning a little about business etiquette around the world.

business etiquette around the world

Here is a guide to business etiquette around the world as told by Jim Whittle, the founder of Rome Vacation Tips.

Business etiquette in the US

The lure of doing business in the United States is as apparent today as it was almost a century ago, when the term ‘The America Dream’ was first coined by writer James Truslow Adams. The US is home to the world’s largest economy, and residents there are patriotic, competitive, and often business-minded. Time is Money and employees are expected to go above and beyond. This is evident by the fact that workers in the US take fewer holiday days than most other countries.

Things to remember:

  • North Americans use imperial measurements. Use gallons, miles, pounds, and Fahrenheit instead of litres, kilometres, kilograms and Centigrade.
  • The 24-hour clock is rarely used, so when it comes to requesting meetings in writing, use 3.30 pm instead of 15.00.
  • While English is the main language, there are also 50 million Spanish speakers. It can be helpful to learn some Spanish terms especially for New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and parts of California
  • Tipping is a MUST. Those working in the service sector are often on a low wage and depend on tips. Around 20% is considered fair, and it is expected that the host will pay for this as well as the overall bill. Many business deals occur over dinner or other entertainment such as golfing.
  • Good customer service is very important. Be kind and polite to everyone encountered, making sure to wish them a great day.

Business etiquette in Germany

Germany is Europe’s biggest exporting country. This is probably because it is known all over the world for its high standard of engineering and manufacturing. The country has the largest economy in Europe and the fourth largest globally. Considered one of the top destinations for ex-pats, Germany offers a multicultural society of residents who are hardworking and reliable.

Things to remember:

  • Germany is known for punctuality and efficiency; a fact that is evident in all aspects of business. Meeting attendees who are late even by a few minutes causes great offence, and cancelling a meeting at short notice can cause irreparable damage to a business relationship.
  • Bureaucracy is at the heart of business. There are a number of procedures to undertake should you wish to start a business, and it can take more than six weeks to register a business property. There are also 14 different taxes, and nine tax payments to make annually. There are also strict employment laws to follow.
  • Employees are usually entitled to around six weeks of paid holiday leave, and a working week of 48 hours (on average, in six month period) should not be exceeded.
  • Places of business are formal and conservative. This means attire should be understated and plain – jackets and ties should only be removed if German colleagues do so. Avoid using first names without being invited to, stick to handshakes, and allow for ample personal space.
  • Your word is your bond in Germany. In business, if a person agrees to do something they are expected to show a level of commitment and follow through with duties and promises.

Business etiquette in Hong Kong

In the 2018 Index of Economic Freedom, Hong Kong was top of the list of free economies worldwide. This multicultural island has a long history of international trade, and today is still widely considered the gateway to Asia’s industry. There are almost 9,000 businesses in Hong Kong that have overseas parent companies, illustrating the region’s continuing prominence as a centre of commerce.

Things to remember:

  • English is the main business language in Hong Kong, although Cantonese is the main language among residents. An effort to learn come Cantonese phrases shows respect, as does using both English and Cantonese on business cards.
  • Chinese traditions often manifest in business. From feng sui office spaces to family-owned business empires, traditional values are an important part of business in Hong Kong.
  • Offices are conservative spaces, so clothing should be unfussy and muted colours. Suits and pantsuits are expected even in hot summer months; offices are usually air-conditioned.
  • The practice of ‘saving face’ is very important. Never embarrass or undermine colleagues or business associates as this will effectively lower their status among their colleagues.
  • Business hierarchy is observed. The varying levels of employees will dictate where they sit at meetings and social events, as well as determine who speaks first.
  • Show respect in every element. Make sure you use titles, shake hands, and give proper attention to business cards that get handed to you. Respectful behaviour is imperative to gain credence in business.

Business etiquette in Canada

One of the largest trading nations in the world, in business Canada is largely valued for its political stability, multicultural population, and strong economic growth. The country has access to a vast amount of natural resources, including the third-largest oil reserves worldwide. Other exports include timber, coal, precious metals, and iron ore. Offering low business taxes, Canada comes sixth in Forbes’ Best Countries for Business list.

Things to remember:

  • While the official language in Canada is English, around 20% speak French. Most French-speakers are in and around Quebec, however, both languages have an equal status in federal law, and federal institutions must offer services in both.
  • Businesses operating in Quebec are subjected to strict rules pertaining to language. They must have a French business name and be able to offer customers websites, adverts, packaging, and documents in French. French computer keyboards must also be available. Businesses employing more than 50 staff must also use French as a first language for all communication – external and internal.
  • Avoid using the US as a point of reference. Canadians are generally patriotic and proud of what makes them different from their neighbours. Because of this, it’s inadvisable to make comparisons to the USA – particularly with respect to business.
  • Be punctual and conservative. In Canada, schedules are put in place to be adhered to. Be on time for meetings, follow through with promises, and maintain a professional attitude. Attire should always be smart, eye contact should accompany handshakes, and use titles instead of first names, to begin with.
  • Business communication is direct and well-thought-out. In Canada most negotiations are hinged on evidence, data, and clear conversation; don’t dance around the subject in a meeting.

Business Etiquette in Italy

The third-largest economy in the Eurozone, Italy has a substantially industrial north which is mostly comprised of private companies, and far more agricultural south. Much of the country’s economic success comes from the production of high-quality consumer goods by small and medium businesses.

Things to remember:

  • Punctuality is not expected. Don’t take it personally when business meetings start late and end late; schedules are more of a relaxed suggestion than a strict timetable in Italy. Be prepared for this and try to stay patient instead of getting annoyed. If there are strict deadlines on occasions, be sure to communicate this clearly and repeatedly.
  • Italy’s love affair with good food means a professional meeting will nearly always involve a meal, either during or after business talks. If invited to eat, be aware that a refusal – no matter how polite – will most likely be taken as an insult. Italians are hospitable people and that extends to how they do business. Business lunches can go on for two or three hours – if invited to one, plan accordingly.
  • Work attire should be carefully considered. Italy is known as one of the world’s most fashionable countries, and a fashion on focus is broadly evident – including in business. It’s important to strike a balance between professionalism and fashion.
  • Interruptions are common. The world of business in Italy is fast-paced and competitive, and often there are many voices competing to be heard in the boardroom. Do not take offence if someone talks over you in a meeting, get involved but maintain a professional manner.
  • Negotiations and decisions take time. In Italy, business meetings are usually a platform for sharing ideas and opinions, and very often final decisions will not be made quickly. Expect multiple meetings and ad-hoc conversations.
  • Make sure the language you use is appropriate. As in many Latin languages, Italian uses two words for ‘you’ depending on your familiarity with a person. The formal is ‘Lei’ and the informal is ‘tu’. Using ‘tu’ prematurely is considered impolite.

Entering into business in another country

No matter the size or nature of your business, it’s good form to put some effort into researching the country you plan to expand or sell to. Whether as a business person, or even a tourist, giving due consideration to cultural norms and traditions in other countries is a highly-regarded signal of respect.

More on taking your business international and attracting international customers.

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