International Business Etiquette

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In international business, it is frighteningly easy to offend. Indeed, international business etiquette may be so spring loaded that if you are not particularly attentive to the rules, you might risk unintentionally offending someone and driving business away.

There are cultural differences that seem like difficult hurdles to overcome, and yet overcome them you must if you want your business to succeed. And while these cultural differences manifest themselves in almost every aspect of business, they are more pronounced in certain areas, such as time management, personal space, gift giving, humour and food. As such, you need to focus your learning of international business etiquette on these target areas.

Business Card Protocol

To you, it might just be a piece of paper. But for some cultures, the act of exchanging business cards has to be accompanied with protocol and decorum. To do otherwise would be to wilfully commit a capital offense in international business etiquette. So before you leave for your international offices, make sure you know the proper way to slip someone your business card.

In Japan, for instance, business cards have to be offered using both hands and you are expected to study them for several seconds and to never slip them in your pocket while in the giver’s presence. In the Middle East, the international business etiquette on business cards is a little different. You are not allowed to use your left hand when offering a business card.

Shake Hands or Pat Someone’s Head?

It is standard international business etiquette to want to shake someone’s hand right after meeting them. And if one of the workers is doing a particularly good job, you may even be tempted to give him a pat in the head. This gesture is generally harmless, but if you are doing business in Thailand, you should think twice. This is considered a grave insult as the head is considered sacred.

Gift Giving

What could be so hard about giving someone a gift? Yet, this is actually the most difficult aspects of international business etiquette. Cultures are so varied as to when it is appropriate to give gifts and what is appropriate to give.

Some countries consider a gift as a necessary precursor for building a business relationship. But in others, gift giving is considered an ostentatious practice and highly insulting in certain circumstances. So pay attention as to when it is appropriate for you to show someone your appreciation with a small gift.


You consider these as an ordinary part of communication. Sometimes, you are so used to making gestures that you hardly ever think about them when you are making them. However, international business etiquette recommends that you change your lax attitude towards gestures as these can easily be misinterpreted. In some cultures, like Bulgaria and Albania, nodding your head actually means “no” while shaking it means “yes”. In Iran, crossing your legs with the sole of your foot facing someone is an insult.