Tips for Avoiding International Business Blunders

by Felicia Fuller
international business etiquette

Remember your international business etiquette!

I remember November 2006 like it was yesterday. I was on a 10-day assignment in St. Petersburg, Russia, as managing editor of my then-employer’s flagship monthly magazine. Among other issues, I was there to cover efforts to stem the surge of HIV infections in Russia’s government-run orphanages. It was my first trip to Europe and to say I was both excited and apprehensive is a gross understatement, especially given the comments of well-meaning colleagues who’d gone before me.

“You’ll be a novelty,” they said. “There aren’t many blacks there … just the nature of the culture.”

For perspective, it had only been 17 years since the Iron Curtain fell and Russia was opened to foreign visitors, so it remained rare to find brown faces in this largely monochromatic society.  Imagine the irony – African slave descendant Alexander Pushkin was celebrated as the founding father of Russian literature, yet blacks were “a novelty” in the former Soviet Union.

“Oh, and the Russians never smile. Don’t expect them to shake your hand either,” my colleagues added. “It’s just their way … nothing personal. But they will get right in your face to talk to you and they talk really loud.”

Needless to say, I proceeded with caution. I would learn that much of what my colleagues said was true, especially the part about not smiling. And so began my immersion in European customs. I made a few mistakes along the way – like failing to at least sample the heaping helping of cold meat jelly (called aspic) served at dinner – but boy did I learn a lot.

Doing business in other countries can be a tricky proposition, but here are a few regional pointers from eDiplomat™ that might help you avoid cultural faux pas and save face.


  • Take time to greet and say goodbye to each person present at a business meeting.
  • Brazilians are extremely casual about time. Being 10 to 15 minutes late is normal, and 20 to 30 minutes late is not unusual. Be on time for a formal meeting, but prepare to wait for your Brazilian colleagues.
  • Physical contact is part of communication. Brazilians also stand extremely close to one another. Do not back away.
  • Brazilians are expressive and passionate conversationalists. Prepare to be interrupted.
  • Your personality and ability to establish strong personal and business relationships is important to the success of your business.



  • Canadians are more reserved than Americans. Maintaining a certain amount of personal space is important.
  • It’s considered bad form by many in Quebec to talk with your hands in your pockets.
  • Punctuality is demanded for business meetings and social occasions.
  • Canadians get down to business quickly. Meetings are well-organized, and extraneous discussion is kept to a minimum. A premium is placed on time.
  • Some Canadians may be wary about the intentions of American businesses and put off by what they perceive as American arrogance. Some Canadians may dislike the American “hard sell” approach.



  • Shake hands upon meeting. Chinese may nod or bow instead of shaking hands, although shaking hands has become increasingly common.
  • Use family names and appropriate titles until specifically invited by your Chinese host or colleagues to use their given names.
  • The Chinese dislike being touched by strangers. Do not touch, hug, lock arms, back slap or make any body contact.
  • Business cards should be printed in English on one side and Chinese on the other. Make sure the Chinese side uses “simplified” characters and not “classical” characters, which are used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
  • The Chinese will enter a meeting with the highest-ranking person entering first. They will assume the first member of your group to enter the room is the leader of your delegation.



  • At a business or social meeting, shake hands with everyone present when arriving and leaving.
  • When introducing yourself, never use your title. Introduce yourself by your last name only.
  • Never put your hands in your pockets when talking with someone.
  • Tardiness is viewed as thoughtless and rude. Call with an explanation if you are delayed.
  • Send company profiles, personal profiles, etc., to German colleagues before your visit to establish credibility.



  • Men shake hands with men when meeting or leaving. Men do not touch women when meeting or greeting. Western women may offer their hand to a westernized Indian man, but not normally to others. Traditional Indian women may shake hands with foreign women but not usually with men.
  • Indians generally allow an arm’s length space between themselves and others.
  • Use your right hand only to touch someone, pass money or pick up merchandise. The left hand is considered unclean.
  • Always present business cards when introduced. English is appropriate.
  • It is considered rude to plunge into business discussions immediately. Ask about your counterpart’s family, interests, hobbies, etc., before beginning business discussions.



  • Nodding is very important. When listening to Japanese speak, especially in English, you should nod to show you are listening and understanding the speaker.
  • Do not stand close to a Japanese person. Avoid touching.
  • Prolonged eye contact (staring) is considered rude.
  • Japanese may exchange business cards even before they shake hands or bow.
  • Etiquette and harmony are very important. “Saving face” is a key concept. Japanese are anxious to avoid unpleasantness and confrontation. Try to avoid saying “no.” Instead, say, “This could be very difficult,” allowing colleagues to save face.



  • A handshake is always appropriate (but not obligatory) when greeting or leaving, regardless of the relationship.
  • Russians appreciate punctuality. Business meetings generally begin on time.
  • Representatives of the Russian company or government body are usually seated on one side of a table at meetings with guests on the other side.
  • Your company should be represented by a specialized team of experts. Presentations should be thoroughly prepared, detailed, factual and short on “salesmanship.”
  • No agreement is final until a contract has been signed.


For further guidance on international business etiquette, visit eDiplomat™.

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