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Etiquette and Doing Business Abroad

Etiquette and Doing Business Abroad

Would you drink fermented mare’s milk with your new potential Mongolian business partners to seal a deal? Or would you politely decline? The answer may come down to the strength of your stomach or your awareness of local etiquette.


“If you were to not drink it or have any sort of reaction to that initial taste, it would definitely lower your standing within a meeting,” says Will Tindall, co-founder of Emerging Crowd. “And you’re very much expected to have a shot each time someone has spoken.”

This is one of any cultural conundrums revealed by Matthew Jenkin in his Guardian article on the role of etiquette in international business.

Tindall, experienced at navigating the cultural landscape of Asia, stresses that even with his experience it can sometimes be hard to get your head around different local customs.  

He recalls a meeting in Tokyo, Japan, where he met a senior banking official. He gave a bow, accepted the business card and then began to make notes on the card. “At that point I saw this guy’s face change to a very strange shade of red. My actions went down incredibly badly.” Writing on the card was a major faux pas as in Japan, the card is a representation of the owner.

Cultural differences go beyond etiquette; sometimes it’s much more subtle. Louis Barnett, the founder of Louis Barnett Chocolates, states that one of his biggest challenges was understanding that in some cultures business is much more than business; it’s personal.

He recalls going into a meeting in Mexico being very business-focused, driven, factual and hard-nosed. This worked against him as Mexicans prioritise personal relationships above business prowess. His lack of interaction with his hosts was interpreted as showing complete disinterest in the people.

How we communicate is also important.  Simon Duffy, Bulldog Swimcare, explains that he discovered that how you phrase things was vital to saving face in South Korea.  “One of the things we tried to avoid was phrasing questions that required a yes or no answer, as Koreans try to avoid the latter.” Asking questions in such as manner would be seen as confrontational to local sensibilities.

Remember, culture is important – wherever you go always try to read up on how locals like to do things. Are they business or relationship driven? Do they value direct, frank communication or prefer a softer, more personal approach? It’s these and many other questions that can help give you a competitive advantage when working abroad. Through appreciation of the local culture, you’ll find doors open and things happen much quicker.

Check out our free Country Profiles for some basic etiquette and cultural information from around the globe.

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