Unless you’re cursed with a notable lack of social grace, you probably have a fairly good grasp of how to behave within the business culture of your own country. You know when to shake hands, how to address your peers and superiors, and what kind of things you should or shouldn’t be laughing at.
But would you have a clue when meeting professionals from an entirely different country and culture? Would you know enough to avoid the embarrassing – and potentially business-damaging – range of faux pas that awaits you? If not, we’re here to help. While you might never master all of the finer points of a different country’s business etiquette, we hope this basic guide to a few traditions can at least help you successfully break the ice – before you break the deal!
And remember – just as in your own country, you can’t guarantee that everyone follows the same standards. This isn’t a guide to national stereotypes but more of a guide to help you understand some of the most commonly observed conventions of each culture.
China is a huge country with a huge history – so it seems only natural that they’d have plenty of traditions to follow, as well. One particularly important part of Chinese culture is known as ‘face’; which roughly means something like ‘honour’ or ‘good reputation’. It could involve giving face through compliments, showing face through wisdom and experience, or losing face by making mistakes. Do your best at all times to both preserve your own face, and avoid doing anything to cause a loss of face in others.
When the time comes for a meeting, don’t be late. Punctuality is considered a virtue in China and a late arrival could be downright insulting to the other party. You should also pay close attention to rank – both in the way you communicate to different members of a team, and in how you arrange the seating positions in the meeting. And if you plan to use visual aids during a presentation, play it safe – different colours can have very specific meanings in China, so try to stick to black type on a white background.
Structure and order are usually the most perceived qualities of a German workplace, and in a traditional environment, they’re often strictly adhered to. Again, punctuality is a serious matter – so don’t get off on the wrong foot. Use titles and surnames unless encouraged to switch to first names: “Herr” for men and “Frau” for women, regardless of their marital status.
And don’t forget to shake hands. As well as doing it when greeting or being introduced, German professionals usually shake hands with everyone at both the beginning and the end of a meeting. Even if something unexpected comes up, and you need to leave before the meeting ends, shake everyone’s hand again before you leave – the most senior person should get the first handshake, the second-highest person gets the second one, and so on. But make sure you leave it at just a shake – what might seem like an innocent pat on the back to you could seem entirely inappropriate to a German colleague.
Above all, remember that privacy is highly valued in Germany. Keep small talk light and un-intrusive, don’t talk about your own or anyone else’s income, and don’t call a German colleague at home unless it’s a really serious emergency.
India is a country with a wide range of cultural traditions, so it might not always be easy to be sure you’re acting in the best way. That’s why – just as in any other country – it’s best to do your research first. And if in doubt, follow the lead of others around you.
While many business meetings in India will begin with a handshake, you might be able to better show your respect of Indian culture by first learning the “namaste”, which roughly translates to “I bow to you”. Bring your two palms together in the centre of your chest – somewhat like the Western praying gesture – and slightly nod your head. Of course, if an Indian professional greets you by offering their hand for a shake, it’s probably best to follow suit.
Before the meeting begins, it’s customary to begin with some light, impersonal small talk. And once the meeting is under way, do your best to avoid high-pressure techniques or forceful approaches – keep your presentations and negotiations as diplomatic as possible. In many parts of India, it’s considered impolite to directly say “no” – so keep an ear open for responses to your requests or suggestions that sound like they might be trying to avoid it, such as “perhaps” or “possibly”. Knowing this, you should probably do your best to avoid direct refusals yourself – try to use the same kinds of responses that you hear from other Indian professionals.
However far you take your business beyond the edges of your own, familiar culture – you’re bound to encounter interesting new expectations for professional behaviour. And with a little research, understanding and respect, you can make sure that you present your enterprise – and your home country – in the best possible light.