The Importance of Understanding International Etiquette in Business

International etiquette, and sometimes travel, are confounded by many of the international situations in the world today: concerns of terrorism, disease (flu/Ebola), and stronger, detrimental weather patterns. Your foremost concern is for your safety. Beware of travel alerts or advisories, and adjust accordingly. Nonetheless, as a business professional, you understand the importance and value of well-established international relationships. Thousands of international flights to occur daily and that is an indicator of our need for international relations. International relations can be tricky, so we will show you what you can do to build the best national reputation for you, and ultimately, your overseas clients. U.S. business depends on international relationships. It is important for you, as the business professional, to know what is expected of you -- and from you -- in your client relationships.

We will discuss many of the key points you will need to know for international etiquette.

Each time you travel abroad, you should research the specific region and country you are visiting to be aware of cultural shifts. It is important to know the cultural nuances for your respective area of travel. We will give you the framework to do well with international etiquette, but your clients will be more impressed if you have knowledge of their cultural intricacies. Etiquette is not recognized as one uniform set of standards around the globe. A hand sign that means, "Hi, how are you?" in the United States might have the opposite meaning in other cultures and countries.

The importance of relationships cannot be overstated in international business etiquette. How you meet and greet is the most important part of your visit, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Many behavioral studies show that in the U.S. and abroad, most people judge you within 30 seconds of introduction. This includes your social position, economic level, educational level, and success. Within another three to five minutes, they further make their opinions on your trustworthiness, intelligence, friendliness, reliability, and your level of compassion. Keep that in mind, whether you are at home or traveling. These are just some estimates, but it is the reality of how quickly people form their opinion of you.

Here are some ideas for making a positive first impression:

  • Dress for the meeting in a manner that reflects the culture, and reflects your client's expectations.

  • Determine in advance who you will be meeting with, their position in the company, and who else might be meeting with you. Rehearse the meeting in your mind, as you travel to your destination.

  • Establish clear objectives for your meeting in advance.

  • Communicate in a polite manner, with a positive attitude, using proper etiquette.

  • Understand the history and culture of the country you are visiting, and learn a few phrases in their language. At a minimum, be able to use the words, "yes," "no," "please," "thank you," and "help." Clients will appreciate someone who tries to speak their language, even if it is only a few phrases.

  • Understand how the residents of the country you are visiting speak to one another, non-verbal signs they may use, and what style you should mirror.

  • The more you understand about the culture, and the more of their language you can use, the deeper the relationship will be.

Greetings, Introductions, and Handshakes

  • Never seem insincere. The phrase, "How are you?" is taken as insincere in many cultures, because they feel Americans do not truly want to hear the reply to the question. "Hi," is taken in the same manner. A good standard greeting to use is, "Hello, I am pleased to meet you."

  • When traveling, it is important that you accept whatever food or drink you are offered; unlike in the United States, it may be seen as offensive if your do not accept.

  • When making introductions, always stand and the person of highest rank should initiate the handshake.

  • Many cultures have differences in the way they use titles and first or last names when making introductions. Always ask locally what the appropriate usage is. Concierges at hotels are often willing to give you guidance.

  • Maintain a good sense of humor, because you will make mistakes. Learn from them and see the humor in the situation.


  • Be aware of nonverbal signals you may be sending through your body language.

  • Know your opponent's culture and history to be prepared for the negotiations.

  • During negotiations, always leave room to bargain.

  • Acknowledge when you do not understand, and vice versa. You want to ensure future business.

  • Be patient and allow both sides time for decision making.

Handshake Customs

Procedures vary by country, but introductions are most often accompanied by a handshake, real kiss, a bow, embrace, or air kiss -- depending on the culture. Hugging is considered inappropriate in business introductions in the United States, but is common in South America, the Middle East, and African countries. The bow is most common in China and Japan.

Handshakes are acceptable when greeting in African cultures, such as Nigeria and Kenya, and in some Middle Eastern countries. The bow is still more common in Japan and China. Always use a firm, but not hard, handshake.

Exchanging Business Cards

Exchanging Business Cards is an important part of business interaction, so you know a person's rank, title, and profession. An exchange of business cards is an expected part of business introductions in most countries. Always use a good quality card stock and you may want to have cards translated into your customer's first language.

In most foreign countries, you should carefully review the information on the card, and then nod indicating you have read the card and you understand the information on the card. Always hand your card with the right hand to present it.

Country-Specific Information

There are many similarities between countries -- but even more differences. Let's review actions you should take for specific countries. The most common interactions are the greeting, handshake, or bow, and the exchange of business cards. We will review in alphabetical order.


  • Women may use one to four air kisses to each cheek during a handshake. Men do not greet with kissing.

  • Having business cards printed in English on one side, and in Portuguese on the reverse side, is recommended


  • Canadians are considered conservative and adhere to social and business etiquette.

  • Handshakes are appropriate, using direct eye contact.

  • Males and females may embrace lightly when meeting.

  • Business cards should be printed in English on one side, and French on the other side of the card. This is a legal requirement that everything must be labeled in both languages in Canada.


  • Chinese greet the most senior person first. They greet using the surname first, followed by the first name.

  • Chinese bow or nod when greeting, but generally offer a gentle handshake to Westerners.

  • Business cards should be printed in English and Mandarin Chinese, in black ink.


  • In France, handshakes are used as a greeting and to say goodbye.

  • Women may also kiss each other on the cheek as part of a greeting. Men only kiss on the cheek if they are good friends, or if they are related.

  • These cards are exchanged and presented to the person of highest rank first. Business cards in these situations should be printed in English and French.


  • In Germany, greetings and welcomes are conducted using a handshake on greeting and departure.

  • Business cards should be printed in English and German.

  • Germany pays special attention to status in their culture and value women.


  • In Japan, greetings are exchanged in the form of bow, rather than a handshake.

  • In some areas, handshakes and bows may be interchangeable.

  • Always make sure your business cards are printed in Japanese and English.


  • In Mexico a handshake is a common greeting, and males may follow up with hug.

  • You should use last names in initial conversations.

  • Business cards should be printed in Spanish and English.

South Korea

  • In Korea, the established greeting is the bow.

  • In Korea, the use of an honorific term -- "ssi" -- is added to a South Korean family name.

  • Your business cards should be printed in English and Korean.


  • In Taiwan, the common form of greeting is the bow.

  • Light handshakes are given during the business card exchange.

United Kingdom

  • In the United Kingdom, the common greeting is the handshake, followed by the phrase, "How do you do?"

  • Obviously, in this region, your business cards should be printed in English.

International Travel Tips

When traveling in foreign countries, there are several things you can do to make the most of your travel, including preparation with passports and visas, metric conversions, and currency calculations.

  • Passports are required for all foreign travel. Make sure you have copies in each piece of your luggage, and leave one with an individual you can contact at home, in case of an emergency.

  • Most foreign travel also requires a visa. Visas can be obtained through each country's embassy or consulate. Be aware that this may take time for the processing, which ranges from two to eight weeks. Be sure this is requested in advance of your departure date.

  • You may also need to convert currency prior to departure from the United States. This can often be done at a bank, or at major airports.

  • The majority of the world uses the metric system, so you may want a converter for distances, measurement, and temperature conversions.

  • Many foreign countries also use different voltages, so be sure to pack a voltage adapter.

  • Here is a brief checklist for items you may want to include: your passport and visa, government identification, emergency contact list, cash currency, credit cards, hotel information, car rental information, insurance cards, and business cards.

Punctuality and Time

Punctuality and time are received differently in many cultures. It's important that you understand the local time, and also monitor the current time back home during business interactions. Time, in some cultures, is a mixture of the past, present, and future.

In the United States, we follow regimented time schedules, while in other cultures, it is acceptable to be as much as an hour late. In Middle Eastern countries, power is shown by arriving late. In Latin America and Africa, time is not important. In these countries, there is an expectation that you will be late, so that guests will be ready for you. In most of these countries, and equal proportion is given to the meeting intent and socializing.

People in countries that are based by the lunar cycle may wear two wristwatches. One with Greenwich-based time, and the other with lunar time. You should understand personal time and business time and be aware of the local views, when communicating with other cultures.

Gift Giving

Gift giving practices vary by country. It's important to ask your hotel concierge what type of gift would be appropriate. In some countries, trinkets may be offensive or give the wrong meaning. The American eagle is very near to our hearts in the United States; it is offensive in China and Saudi Arabia, because it indicates bad luck. In some cultures, gifts are not opened in front of the gift giver; they're opened at a later time. This is the case in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

  • Always give American-made gifts.

  • Always accept gifts when they are given to you.

  • Always minimize financial positions.

  • Research local customs, if in doubt.

  • Always present a gift after contract negotiations.

Guidelines for female international business travelers

  • Always be respectful of cultural variations.

  • Show respect for the host culture, and work within the norms as much as possible.

  • Do not expect to be treated equally in foreign countries.

  • Be sure to look at culture-specific activities prior to travel.

  • Always remain in groups, and never travel alone.

Summary, reminders, and takeaways

The smile will be one of your best means of communication in most cultures. If in doubt, use it. Each time you travel abroad you should research the specific region and country you are visiting to be aware of cultural shifts. It is important to know the cultural nuances for your respective area of travel. Everyone encounters an uncomfortable situation. Approach it with poise and confidence, and your clients will be more impressed with your business and cultural knowledge.