ULG's Language Services Blog

Three Steps to Acing Foreign Business Etiquette


A foreign business trip is a daunting undertaking for anyone. The fear of not understanding workflow, customs, business etiquette, and communication styles can present seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Worrying about what to do and hoping you don’t accidentally blow your company’s chances isn’t enough, though. By preparing correctly, you can handle any situation with style.

Step 1: Research the Country, Culture, and Business

The importance of research can’t be understated, and should take place well before you leave for the business trip. It’s the digital age, so make full use of the internet! There are dozens of website articles that give tips for how to act in a business meeting anywhere in the world.

Don’t look just for generalized tips, though. Search for specific questions you might have for how to behave in a given culture. Through these finely tuned searches, you’ll be able to find niche websites that will have answers for any business etiquette situation you might find yourself in.

By researching the business, you’ll learn about their core values, history, and employees. All of this information will prove useful during the meeting, and will show them that you understand the company beyond simple facts.

While searching for tips is essential for knowing small behavioral changes you should make, it shouldn’t be the extent of your research. Learning the in-depth characteristics of a culture is also important. One starting point is to consider the Iceberg Model, which states that only 10 percent of a culture can be viewed at the surface level, and the other 90 percent of what makes the culture truly operate is hidden beneath the surface.

In the context of a business meeting, there are several cultural characteristics to pay particular attention to:

  • Symbolism
  • Physical space
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Sense of time
  • Emotional responses
  • Class
  • Age

Step 2: Observe the Business Etiquette of Others

Once you’ve set foot in that foreign country, your observation skills need to be finely tuned. During meetings, it’s important to follow the lead of others.

In Japan, for instance, an etiquette custom comes from the exchange of business cards. However, the exchange starts with the highest-ranking people at the meeting. Typically, this will give you a chance to observe the correct posture and mannerisms necessary when it’s your turn to present your own business cards.

Observation can come in handy for personal space, too. Observe how close or far people are standing when greeting each other or talking, and take it as a cue for you to do the same.

Of course, it’s equally as important to observe what isn’t happening during a business meeting to give you clues on how to act. During a business meal in India, for example, nobody will order beef, and you should take cues from what others are ordering before doing so yourself. As a general rule, if you’re not sure if an action will offend someone, don’t do it.

Step 3: Ask Your Host Questions

If your research and observations haven’t given you an answer to a particular custom, ask questions. If you’re worried about running into an unexpected situation, ask your interpreter or host about what those situations might be, and the proper response.

Gracious hosts will completely understand that you’re new to the country and unaccustomed to their traditions and customs. By asking questions, you’ll showcase your interest in their culture, and your commitment to etiquette and politeness.

All three of these steps are necessary to a successful foreign business trip, and by keeping an open and curious mind, you’ll be able to competently handle any challenge that’s thrown at you.