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Your Cheat Sheet to Business Etiquette Around the World

Your Cheat Sheet to Business Etiquette Around the World main image

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As some first-time business travelers have learned the hard way, business customs don’t always translate overseas. If you’re brokering a deal or readying for a job, insufficient command of business etiquette abroad could cost you and your organization a business opportunity. Fortunately we can help: from the concept of “saving of face” in Asia to handshakes, you might want to avoid common pitfalls when doing business abroad with our top tips.

Gift-giving: the dos and don’ts

The exchange of business gifts is an important ritual in many countries, where they can be seen as a gesture of goodwill, a symbolic way to say “thank you” and cement business relationships. But superstitions and traditions can often muddy the waters for first-time travelers bewildered by the many layers of complexity in another culture.  

Gift-giving etiquette is not the same wherever you go, so take stock of local business traditions before you invest in a hamper. In China, for example, it’s considered poor taste to give clocks, watches, or fours of anything (the number is considered bad luck). If traveling to Malaysia, you’d be better off not wrapping up your gift in the color white (as it symbolizes death) and avoiding alcohol gifts or anything made from pork, particularly if your client is ethnic Malay. Generally, inexpensive gifts from your home country or functional items like pens and office accessories are looked on favorably.

In Singapore, the recipient is expected to decline up to three times before accepting it, while in Chile, gifts are accepted and opened straight away. The concept of “saving face” in Japan might mean that the recipient doesn’t open the gift immediately, but saves it for later, to avoid causing you embarrassment if they open it and don’t like it. Another thing to bear in mind: in some countries, it’s considered the height of rudeness to present or accept a gift with only one hand, so always use both.  

Of course, gift-giving is not a business custom everywhere in the world, particularly in Australia, France, Hungary, Italy, England, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or the United States, where your gift might be misconstrued as a bribe.

Stack the business cards in your favor

Like corporate gifts, business cards are best handed out and accepted with both hands and a slight bow, if possible. In Japan, for example, the exchange of business cards (meishi) is a heavily codified process - not a mere sliding of cards across the conference table. When accepting a business card, treat it with as much care you would your future job prospects, so don’t crumple it by cramming it into a coat pocket.

Behind every successful deal is a culturally-sensitive introduction

Handshakes are not as widespread as you might think. In some countries, they’re much less common, if not avoided altogether. So it might be a good idea to wait for the other person to initiate an introduction, whether it’s a cheek to cheek air-kiss, as is common in Belgium and France, or a slight bow, as might be the case in Japan.  

Of course, different countries favour different levels of formality. In France, for example, when meeting a person for the first time, it’s always a good idea to address him or her as monsieur or madame, introducing yourself with your full name. Always, always, use the plural form of “you” in French (vous) until instructed otherwise by your interlocutor. And remember: if you can’t speak any French, apologize out of courtesy.

Demystify international business practices at

With a campus in Euston in central London, SOAS attracts students from all over the world, with over 133 nationalities represented on campus. Many of the courses offered by SOAS are angled toward an international perspective. Their MSc in International Management, which can be taken with a focus on either , , , the or - with an optional Year Abroad in most cases - will teach you international business strategy and how to manage a transnational corporation. On the MSc, you will gain the specialist skills and know-how you need to take on a leading management role at a multinational operating around the world.

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