Surviving a Business Meeting in Another Culture

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • Before you go and when you arrive.
  • At the meeting.
  • When socializing.
Surviving a Business Meeting in Another Culture

You've been selected to represent your company at an important meeting in another country. When the initial euphoria passes, you begin worrying about how to behave in another culture’s business climate.

Will you say, do or wear the wrong thing?

In fact, it is sickeningly easy to do or say the wrong thing when you don't understand another culture. Business manners and methods, religious customs, humor and dress codes differ widely from country to country. For example, did you know that in Spain and Brazil the common American sign for OK (creating a circle with your thumb and forefinger) is considered rude? Or did you know that in Thailand, you should never touch a person on the head or pass something over it, as the head is considered sacred? A nod in Bulgaria means "no" and shaking your head means, "yes." In Vietnam, all business dealings must begin with inquiries as to the health and well-being of the participants’ families — failing to do so is inexcusably rude. Unfortunately, in other countries, asking about health and family is considered prying — equally inexcusably rude.

With so many cultural differences to consider, you can forget about uninformed attempts at humor or sarcasm — pitfalls abound.

No need to panic, though. SharpWork preparation and care should save you any embarrassing moments and show your hosts what a culturally savvy person you are:

Before You Go

Ask around. Scott H. Lewis is a Registered Investment Advisor and has traveled the world for business. He advises doing adequate research before you travel to a foreign county. "Do your homework regarding the client's culture, just as you would research the client itself. Knowledge of a culture can help you feel more comfortable traveling. Even when a foreign client is at ease with Americans, it never hurts to show you care enough to learn about their culture."

In light of Lewis’s advice, your first priority is to prepare yourself with as much information about your destination and its culture as you can. Speaking to colleagues who have conducted business in your destination can arm you with basic information such as how to greet people, what gestures are rude and how to conduct yourself.

Alternatively, look around you. Lewis asks, "Are there people in your area from that part of the world? They're great resources. The immigrant who drives a taxi, runs a dry cleaner or owns a restaurant in your town can be a lot of help. And most folks love to tell you about 'home.'"

Read Up. You may also want to consider a business customs and etiquette guide for the country you plan to visit. For a book on the business etiquette of your destination country, check out Amazon’s Business Travel section.

If you still have some questions try a site like This site offers advice from "experts" who will answer your query within a few days.

Learn the food. Visit a representative restaurant of your destination country and familiarize yourself with the traditional foods. You'll impress your host with your knowledge of the cuisine and be able to converse on the subject easily. On a personal level, you'll be familiar with what you like and don't like and can choose accordingly when you get there.

And some lingo. Even if your transactions are going to be entirely in English, it will impress your hosts if you take the time to learn a few expressions in their language. It doesn't have to be anything too difficult. Simply being able to say "hello, nice to meet you," "thank you" and "goodbye" will show that you respect their language and culture. They will appreciate the effort. Rather than turning to books, consider getting an audiocassette or CD. Cassettes and CDs are easy to listen to on the plane and will ensure that your pronunciation is correct. Check out Amazon’s Language Store for a quick selection of basic language materials.

When You Arrive

Look around. If time allows, it's a good idea to arrive at your destination a day or two early — like the weekend before a Monday morning meeting. This will give you an opportunity to see some of the city. Later you'll be glad you did, as your hosts are likely to appreciate your knowledge of and interest in the area. Your excursion may also give you something to talk about aside from your business dealings, a must in many countries. Complimenting some aspect of the city is always a good idea, and asking intelligent questions about ongoing projects will set a good tone for your visit.

Greetings. You will probably get an opportunity to meet your hosts before the actual meetings take place, so make sure you impress them with your research. As a showing of goodwill, you might consider greeting your hosts in the way that is common to their culture. Greetings can range from a formal bow to a handshake, a nose rub to a kiss, but you'll have done your research, so you'll be well prepared. Use the phrase you have learned to say "hello" and always presume formality while addressing people. Use the full name and title. Presuming a more casual address is never a good idea until you are invited to use first names.

Be honest. If there is anything you are doubtful about, it's better to admit it rather than guessing the procedure and making a fool of yourself or insulting someone. Lewis advises, "'I'm interested in learning how ‘x’ is done in your culture,' is hardly ever offensive. To the contrary, it shows an honest interest and people are usually happy to explain."

At the Meeting

Wardrobe. First and foremost, it is essential to dress properly for your business meetings. While Americans have taken to more casual attire, even in business, anything less than a suit can be rude in another culture. Alternatively, certain levels — or nuances — of informality that are different from American "business causal" may be appropriate for other cultures, such as Israel. If possible, inquire as to your host’s business wardrobe climate. Absent this, it's always safe to presume formality and dress in neat business clothes.

Timing. Attitudes towards punctuality are different around the world. In countries like Romania, Japan and Germany, people are always on time. However, in many European countries and in the Latin American countries attention to time is more relaxed. The safest bet is to arrive on time and then follow the lead of your hosts.

Never grow impatient if the meeting does not start on time. Your hosts will set the pace and it's up to you to take it in stride. Some cultures, like those in the Middle East and some countries in Asia, will engage in casual conversation — often for an extended period of time — before getting to the business of the day, so you'll need to remain patient and pleasant until everyone is ready to begin.

Scheduling. If you’re in town for more than one set of meetings, make a point of researching punctuality and business conversational requirements to avoid scheduling your meetings too close together.


Drinking. No doubt you'll be invited to join your hosts for dinner or some such social occasion. Don’t relax too much; you won't want to ruin the great impression you have made up to now. So avoid getting intoxicated. You can't be responsible for what you say or do if you are drunk. If your hosts get drunk, you may drink to avoid appearing rude, but not so much that you become drunk.

Dinner. At dinner you can show off your knowledge of the country's cuisine, but don’t flaunt the knowledge or monopolize the conversation. Many people in other cultures value humility and resent someone who shows too much arrogance. Simply ask intelligent questions about the food or describe your favorite dish. When served, wait for your hosts to begin eating first, although in some cultures they may insist that you begin the meal. Follow your hosts’ lead on this and the use of any utensils and foods with which you are unfamiliar.

Merriment. Humor can be a minefield in other cultures. Sarcasm is taken seriously in some countries, so don’t presume that everyone will understand your humor. Avoiding sarcasm is advisable and telling jokes is a good idea only if you are certain your hosts will understand you and that no one will be offended. No outrageous toasts either! If you give a toast, keep it brief and compliment you hosts on their choice of restaurant or thank them for the dinner and hospitality. Then leave it at that.

Bragging rights. It is common in many countries to carry and share photos of family members, so make sure you have some of your own. Also be prepared to talk about your own country and its culture. Avoid unflattering comparisons and all negative subjects of conversation.

Understanding and heeding cultural differences can mean the difference between making a fool of yourself and representing your company in a negative way and impressing your business associates and succeeding in international business. It's worth making the effort. Your success could depend on it.

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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