Travel and Expense

6 things you need to know about international business etiquette

SAP Concur Team |

Traveling for business might be one of the most exciting things you'll experience in your career. But, while thrilling, global business travel comes with various rules of etiquette that cannot be ignored. In fact, business etiquette is so thoroughly interwoven with international travel that books and movies frequently use the topic as plots. Anyone who has seen Lost in Translation has at least a notion of some of the cultural nuances involved in international business etiquette.

Working across countries and cultures can be tricky as there are no universal business etiquette rules—business culture norms in Italy, Russia or Colombia are different from those in China, India or Africa. So, if you frequently travel internationally for business, it’s wise to research the specific customs and expectations of each destination.

With the busiest time of the year for business travel coming up, let's take a look at six overall areas to consider when doing business abroad.

1. Take introductions seriously

In many cultures, people, their relationships, and face-to-face interactions are much more important than they are to North American business professionals. Relationships can be even more important than the actual business issue being discussed. Learning everyone’s name and title before meetings can go a long way to showing you understand what’s important to those with whom you’re doing business. Understanding whether you should address someone by their first name or last name only is also important in certain cultures for building relationships and showing the proper respect.

2. Respect business cards

In Asian countries, for instance, business cards are an extremely important symbol. They are representative of the person them-self, and should be treated with similar respect. In Asia (particularly Japan), business cards are always presented to someone with both hands. When you receive a business card, always read it to yourself while you are still standing in front of the person as a sign of respect—it also helps you memorize their name and title.

3. Be on time

Every culture has a different standard for punctuality. For instance, in Central Europe, business meetings generally begin on time. Conversely, it’s often said that in Latin American cultures, meetings frequently run late. But it’s hard to know how late is acceptable without accidentally offending someone. Regardless of where you do business, you won’t go wrong by being on time. Arriving at the appointed time shows respect to your hosts, and you can always check email or complete another task if you find yourself waiting. It’s also a good idea to clarify specific times. Dinner time in Germany might be 7 p.m., but it is commonly 10 p.m. in Spain. If you have questions, ask a colleague in the country.

4. Stay awhile

Leaving an event early (perhaps due to jet lag or needing to complete work) can also be an unintentional sign of disrespect to the hosts, particularly in Asian cultures. A premature departure could be the death of a deal or a relationship. You don’t have to stay until the very end of an event, but it is best not to be the first person to leave.

5. Bring a gift

Bringing a gift is an important way to show respect to your host. Even if gifts are not expected, bringing one will show courtesy and earn respect from your business associates. While gift-giving is more common in Asian cultures, they can be a great way to begin a relationship anywhere—Europeans and people from the Middle East are also particularly fond of receiving them. (Just be sure that neither you nor your employees are unwittingly violating FCPA laws.)

6. Expect to socialize

In Asia and Latin America, socializing outside of the office environment is critically important to building camaraderie and developing trust. At a minimum, you’ll be expected to have dinner with colleagues or customers. But social expectations often go far beyond just having dinner. You may be expected to go out to bars or nightclubs, go golfing or attend other social activities. Your participation in those activities is an important factor as colleagues assess your trustworthiness for business matters.

If you are uncertain about cultural norms, business customs and cultural differences in certain settings, carefully observe your hosts and co-workers while following their lead. Watch body language cues as this can give you an indication if you are making a faux pas. Before you travel, you should research whether it is the custom to shake hands, how people feel about personal space, and whether making eye contact is considered good or bad in that particular culture. 

International business travel can be a rewarding experience for you and your company. A little research can help you get the most out of it.

Next, learn six ways in which Concur can help you cut T&E costs where you may not be looking

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