First Impressions: Understanding Personal Business Etiquette When Working Overseas

When working in a professional environment abroad, it’s important to observe the country’s culture – both in general and for business – in order to establish solid relationships.  Every country will have its own set of unwritten rules that will define how business is conducted.  When preparing to do business overseas there are general expectations that you can have.

The number one rule of working with others abroad is to do your research.  Search the internet and talk with associates who have been there.  While it might sound extreme, even the smallest cultural faux pas can negatively ding your career or your chances of working with a certain group or business again.  You may come off as rude and uneducated, which makes for a poor business partner in any culture.

Addressing people appropriately is always a significant form of respect.  Some cultures will prefer a more relaxed atmosphere when addressing one another by using first names.  On the flip side, this can be incredibly rude in a professional setting for many Asian cultures.  Understanding what to call another businessman and how to pronounce their name is the first step in forming strong business bonds.

One other example of deep rooted business etiquette found in many Asian cultures is “face”.  It basically implies that you never want to embarrass yourself or your associates in front of other people, causing you or them to “lose face”.  This can be an irreparable act of disrespect.

Another important factor to consider in international business is personal space.  There can be different amounts of personal space completely, or it might vary from person to person based on status and gender.  In general, a handshake is a fairly international symbol of greeting, but never assume this is true.  The type and length of the shake can be meaningful as well.  In some cultures, it might be customary to great with a hug between men, but never with a female associate.

A final simple act to consider when working abroad is how you handle business cards.  In most Western cultures, it is perfectly fine to hand them to someone nonchalantly, slip them into your pocket or play with the corners as you talk.  However, if you were in Singapore, you would be expected to offer or receive the card with two hands and a small bow and then reverently look over the information.

Doing business internationally or when living abroad can be intimidating at first, but with some solid research and respect, you’ll have no problems blending in like an old pro.