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International Business Etiquette: 11 Tips

Manufacturing, Culture, Corporate, International Trade Chris Amorosino on May 2, 2018 9:00:00 AM

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As we pointed out in the How to Create a Thriving Export Business guide, exporting offers businesses a great way to build upon domestic success. The volume of international trade is growing fast. Trade barriers are falling. And competition in your domestic market is probably intensifying, especially from foreign competitors.

All those factors make international business enticing in 2018. If you’ve got a good product and if you’ve studied and found a promising foreign market, you may be ready to plunge in and increase your business.

Get off to a strong start by doing the small things right. Making strong business relationships is part of that. Even in this day of high technology and internet commerce, the person to person touch is still critical.

Here are some ways you can make a good first impression in any foreign or international market.

international business etqiuette

1. Learn the proper use of names and titles

In many countries (like France, Denmark, and the United Kingdom), it’s appropriate to use titles until the other person suggests using first names. So, when you visit that foreign business prospect use his or her last name preceded by the title.

In Germany, titles such as “Herr Direktor” are sometimes used to indicate a person’s prestige, status, and rank. First names are seldom used by those doing business in Germany.

In Thailand, however, people address one another by first names and reserve last names for very formal occasions and written communications.

In Belgium, address French-speaking business contacts as “Monsieur” or “Madame,” but address Flemish-speaking contacts as “Mr.” or “Mrs.”

2. Use the appropriate greetings

First impressions happen only once but they can leave a lasting impression. When you’re in a different culture, something as simple as the way you greet a person can be misunderstood.

Traditional greetings include shaking hands, hugging, kissing, and placing the hands in praying position. The “wrong” greeting can lead to an awkward encounter.

If you’re in an English-speaking culture take into account the degree of formality. “How do you do?” is more formal and more British than, the “How are you?” that’s usually more appropriate with Americans and Australians.

Also note that these expressions are more ritual than actual questions. People won’t answer “How are you?” with an update on their health but with a quick, “I’m fine. How are you?” 

Check with a source in that culture for the best business greeting to use.

3. Learn and use a few words in your business prospect’s native tongue

People in any culture appreciate when a visitor takes the time and effort to learn to speak a few words in that culture’s language.

Consider using words of welcome in your business prospect’s language in your marketing materials (website, product brochures, catalog, etc.), too.

For deep and long lasting success you need to follow our last point (number 11) below.

4. Respect the rules of physical distance 

The physical distance between people greeting each other may be different in a foreign country.

In Western countries people stand about one and a half meters apart, so they can shake hands without taking a step forward.

In Asian cultures, the distance for greeting people is greater (two meters). In many Arab countries, the distance tends to be shorter—it’s about the distance that allows the breath of someone to be felt on the other ́s face.

In those countries and cultures, you could offend your business prospect by stepping back because you think she or he stands too close.

Business Card Protocol

5. Know the local business card protocol

In Western countries you can accept a business card and put it immediately in your pocket.

Such behavior in Japan is considered rude. In Japan carefully look at the card after accepting it. Acknowledge with a nod that you’ve read the information and consider making a relevant comment or asking a polite question.

Here are some examples: “Tell me, how long have you been regional marketing director?” or “Your headquarters is in Paris? What brings you to Brazil?”

6. Understand the cultural gift-giving custom

In Japan, gifts are expected. Failure to present them is considered an insult.

In other countries, presenting a gift may be viewed negatively. Business executives also need to know when to present a gift.

Do you give on the first visit or later? Where do you present the gift? Sometimes a public presentation is the norm but other times you must give in private.

Other gift-giving factors include the type of gift to present and how many gifts are appropriate.  

7. Consider hiring an intern or employee in the international market                                                            

If the business potential is there, consider recruiting a student intern or recent college graduate who speaks the language and understands the business culture.

That shows your commitment to the new market and you’ll learn from the new hire's in-depth knowledge of local customs and norms. 

Another easy way to gain insights and contacts in a foreign market is to go to a local trade show attended by foreign buyers. It’s a way to test your readiness before heading across the border.

8. Learn about appropriate negotiating strategies

You’ll find negotiating is more complicated in international transactions. Complications can arise from cultural misunderstandings.

For example, you’ll want to know the importance of rank in the other country, who makes the decisions, and what style of negotiating fits the style of your prospect.

Also, understand the nature of agreements in the new market, and the significance of gestures and negotiating etiquette. Business negotiations in Brazil usually start with an initial mistrust.

Because of that, frequent meetings, business lunches, and dinners are important to establish a trustworthy relationship. Strong relationships are key in Brazil.           

international business etiquette - time

9. Be patient

If you’re used to the pace of business in the United States, be careful. Few countries have as fast a pace as the U.S. Many demand a much slower build up.

To use Brazil as an example again, you should not start business discussions before your host does. Business meetings in Brazil normally begin with casual chatting.

There’s more insight on doing business in Brazil in our post Business in Brazil? Know the Customs and Culture.

Spending time developing personal relationships is nearly always a good idea, especially with distributors or large-volume buyers.

10. Know the business culture’s attitude about time           

Romanians, Japanese, and Germans are punctual.

Business people in many Latin countries have a more relaxed attitude toward time.

The Japanese consider it rude to be late for a business meeting.

In Guatemala, though, people often arrive from 10 minutes early to 45 minutes late for a luncheon appointment. 

11. Recognize that all marketing is local           

Finally, we want to repeat a key issue from one of our other blog posts. If your company works in markets that cross country or cultural borders you must literally speak the language of the people in those foreign markets.

Your company may have the best product in America but that’s not enough to become a market leader in Spain. 

Your marketing materials – your words, images, colors and designs – must relate easily and clearly to the people across national and cultural borders.

More on international marketing strategy here!