In order for a respectful international workplace to actually be respectful, there must be some rules of etiquette in place to guide everyone present. Depending on where you are and what the circumstances are, those rules can vary from instance to instance. When you're in the professional world, it's expected that everyone will follow the prescribed etiquette that is appropriate for the situation. That being said, it is necessary to understand international office etiquette if you want to have a successful respectful international workplace.
This article will look at office etiquette on a global scale. Topics will include a basic explanation of etiquette, its importance in the professional world, and some of the general etiquette that is expected in a professional world. International etiquette factors and what to do when you need to use international etiquette in a formal setting will also be discussed. Keep in mind that this is only a sample of some of the etiquette that you may be expected to follow in your workplace-or even in your professional career-and should not be treated as a finite list.
What Is Etiquette?
Why Office Etiquette Is Important
Etiquette in general serves a purpose, so its inclusion in certain environments and situations is rarely without reason. This is still true when it comes to the business world and office etiquette. How you conduct yourself with others in professional settings-whether it's just at the office with your co-workers or with a valuable client at an important meeting-is usually done with some kind of goal in mind that is supplementary to the general goal of being polite and courteous. In the office, your conduct helps establish your professional relationships and build a positive rapport with colleagues, clients, superiors, etc.3 You basically want to get on good terms with the people you are interacting with professionally without going to the extremes of "sucking up" to them in order to impress them. Understanding and recognizing acceptable office etiquette, for on both a domestic and an international scale, is important in allow that to happen regardless of what your role in the situation is.
General Professional Etiquette
There are some rules of etiquette that are going to be largely universal in the professional world that can be used regardless of circumstances. They're basic enough that they can be modified if needed, and they're also easy enough to remember. To sum up a few of those basic office etiquette rules:
Be Prompt-Timeliness is important when it comes to etiquette. The easiest way to show that you're being professional is to arrive on time and be ready to do whatever is needed.4 Doing so shows whomever you're interacting with that you are serious about the situation, and that you care about them and the interaction. You don't want to keep people waiting, so aim to arrive on time.
Proper Introductions-There's quite a bit of etiquette tied to how a person is introduced. It's usually recommended that your full name be used when the first introductions are made-i.e. "John Smith" instead of just "John" or "Mr. Smith". Eye contact between parties and standing up when being introduced is also expected in many cases.5 You also want to avoid coming across as arrogant in your introduction, so avoid bragging or unnecessary information about yourself. Handshakes may be necessary, but it depends on the situation (e.g. group size).
Send Thank You's-During a face-to-face or verbal conversation, it's best to try and not overuse the phrase "Thank You" to avoid ruining the sincerity behind it. Saying thank you during a formal conversation is usually reserved for "Thank you for meeting with me", etc. With formal meetings and interactions (e.g. those that are specially scheduled), proper etiquette usually dictates that a thank you note be sent to each attendee by the host(s).6 These should be sent within 24 hours and can be handwritten or digital, depending on how fast you want/need the receivers to get them.
International Etiquette Factors
When you're dealing with international etiquette in the business world, things can get rather complicated. Every country has its own standard for how you are to behave while conducting business, and failure to follow that standard when interacting with someone is seen as both rude and harmful to the situation. While the stakes may be high when meeting with foreign business leaders, the importance of following international etiquette in a professional setting is just as important when it's just you and your colleagues at the office. The diversity of the workplace means that you're likely to interact with people from all cultures, each of whom have their own etiquette for interacting with them.
In many cases, the etiquette present in an international workplace or one that is simply very diverse may have a combination of elements from different cultures. The etiquette appropriate to the location your office is in may be the most dominant, but it may be appropriate to include elements from the culture of the person you're interacting with in order to be polite and courteous. This may be present through:
Greetings and Introductions-How people greet one another can be determined by cultural etiquette. The appropriateness of handshakes, for example, varies from culture to culture. This can include who shakes hands with whom, when handshakes are appropriate, and even how they handshake should be done. It can be the same way for introductions. Business meetings in some cultures and countries can be very formal and require a particular set of rules that must be followed for there to be any kind of successful outcome. In China, for example, it's expected that you present your business card with both hands when you're introduced to someone and look very closely at the card that is handed to you.7
At Meals-Business meetings and dinners are fairly common and come with their own set of etiquette that can get complicated very easily. Food is very important in a lot of cultures, so it's inclusion in international business is rather common. Meal etiquette can involve anything from what you order to how you actually eat your food to how long the meal actually lasts. Some cultures have very long business dinners and you're expected to remain the entire time, so it's often recommended that you pace yourself as you eat and get comfortable at the table.9
Linguistics-Language can be a tricky thing in the business world and it often can serve as a barrier between parties who are trying to collaborate. There is a general rule when operating in the global economy that you avoid linguistic elements like slang or idioms that may not translate well. Knowing some of the language that the person you're interacting with is sometimes viewed as a good form of etiquette, depending on the situation. Maybe not in a casual encounter with a colleague at work, but being able to greet someone and introduce yourself in their language during a formal meeting could set a good first impression. However, do not attempt to fake or pass yourself off as fluent, as you are more likely to insult the person you are working with and violate the rules of etiquette.10
When Using International Etiquette In Formal Settings
If you are going to be in a formal setting-e.g. meeting or business dinner-then its best that you make sure that you are using the proper etiquette for the situation. When there's an international element in play, there's usually a heavy importance placed on using the correct etiquette for the situation. If you're traveling to a different country, then it's usually expected that you adhere to the etiquette of your hosts; domestically, you should try to follow the etiquette of your guests. Either way, you want to make sure that you are making the other party as comfortable as possible.
Preparation-It's best to be as prepared as possible beforehand in order to make sure that you actually do everything that you're supposed to. You can use your travel time to brush up and educate yourself about the etiquette of the situation that you are going into in addition to the business topics that are going to be present. Look at how you are supposed to great your host, are you supposed to bring a gift-and what is an appropriate gift?-and brush up on some of the language.11
Practice-When there are certain behaviors and actions that are expected as a part of an international business interaction, it may be a wise decision to practice those things. This could be a part of your preparation efforts and will likely help you avoid making an embarrassing or harmful faux pas when things get underway.12 Going back to the example of China and business card presentation, you may want to actually practice the proper way of presenting your card in advance in order to make sure that you get it right. The same could be said of things like bowing or phrases used for greeting and addressing people.
Follow The Leader-For many cultures, your ranking within the business is very important and will shape how you interact with others in an international setting. You're usually expected to interact with your counterpart in the other party, including greeting them and how you're positioned when standing or seated. Those with seniority will often lead the discussions in an international setting, as this is how business is conducted in many cultures.13 Follow the instructions and lead of your party's senior-most member and use their actions as guidance for your own-it is likely that they have experience in similar situations and know exact what to do or not do.