Business etiquette for the global marketplace

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The phrase “business etiquette” may sound incredibly formal, but it really just refers to rules for appropriate behavior among members of a given profession. In the past, good manners and common sense may have been all the business etiquette you needed, but in today’s global marketplace, good business etiquette can entail more than simply minding your manners.

In the global marketplace, you may find yourself exchanging email, participating in conference calls and meeting face-to-face with co-workers and customers whose customs are quite different from your own. It’s important to learn as much as you can about the cultures you encounter through your business. Having insight into a country’s cultural dynamics will help you understand why your international business contacts behave the way they do. It can also help guide your own behavior so that it makes sense to those in other countries.

The majority of global business is conducted through email and other forms of digital communication and is affected by different cultural attitudes about how to convey information. Some countries value detailed communication, while others may expect the context for information to be inferred. Another level of complexity is introduced when different languages are involved. When one of the parties in a business conversation is using a non-native language, subtle shadings of meaning may be lost. Be prepared to simplify your word choices when you feel you’re misunderstood and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand what’s being said. Remember that business associates from other countries may not be familiar with American slang and pop cultural references, so leave them out to avoid confusion.

When it comes to face-to-face meetings, there are thousands of different rules of etiquette around the world. Keep things simple by homing in on the information you need to conduct your business. Travel books and websites are a good place to start since they contain a wealth of information about specific countries and regions. You should also check out the country-specific information pages on the U.S. State Department’s website. Items to note include customary business attire and expected behavior during business meetings. For example, if you search for “global business etiquette” on, you’ll learn that a positive attitude is favored by Japanese business people and a detailed agenda is expected in advance of any business meeting in Japan.

If you’re a woman travelling abroad for business, be sure to pay special attention to gender roles in other countries. Making a mistake in this area can be costly to your business, especially in countries where attitudes about women’s behavior are tied to religious beliefs. For example, in general, men in Arab countries typically do not want to shake hands or have other physical contact with women in Western attire, while in India, shaking hands is the only physical contact expected between men and women in a business setting.

Most other countries are not as casual or comfortable as we Americans are when it comes to business attire. Even if you work in an industry such as technology where casual clothing is the norm, this may not be the prevailing custom in the country you’re visiting. If this is the case, clothing that is too informal may be interpreted as showing a lack of respect or professionalism. Avoid making a negative first impression by choosing conservative outfits when traveling internationally for business or hosting international clients or co-workers. Your best bet, according to USA Today, is a high-quality dress or suit in a solid color with minimal accessories.

The rules of business dining etiquette can be especially tricky when you’re traveling abroad. The consumption of alcoholic beverages during a business meal may or may not be acceptable, so follow your host’s lead. If drinking alcohol is customary, limit yourself to one drink. Even if you aren’t familiar with the food items you’re served, demonstrate courtesy by trying everything on your plate (unless you have dietary restrictions for medical reasons). When it comes to mealtime topics of conversation, discussing business is considered rude in some countries and perfectly acceptable in others. If in doubt, allow your hosts to lead the conversation.

As the global economy continues to expand, so will the need for respect for cultural differences. The success or failure of a business venture or collaboration may depend on the participants’ ability to respect each other’s diversity and create a relationship of trust. Experts suggest these three simple rules for global business etiquette: 1) show respect toward people you meet; 2) think before you speak; and 3) stay current on the business etiquette, cultural sensitivities and relevant history of countries where you plan to do business. A final tip–taking time to establish rapport with your global business contacts is the best way to create successful long-term working relationships. HLM

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