AML in Print

Tradeshow Week
August, 2008

Business Etiquette: Mind Your Manners

International business meetings become more frequent as global trade grows. Despite travel travails and the weak dollar, U.S. executives are traveling overseas more frequently all the time. However, there are rules to follow, and not everyone knows them. Business protocol varies from country to country, and knowing what it is could mean the difference between making or breaking the deal.

"This is extremely important for the American businessman to know," said Margaret Burke, principal with Key Point Protocol, an online firm that promotes training in business communications and protocol. "Be sensitive to and be very cautious about everything from training on the cultures of the country to the food that they would be experiencing."

In order not to offend meeting hosts in foreign countries, it is necessary to know the do's and don'ts, according to Lisa Grotts, founder of the AML Group and an etiquette consultant.

"We're completely different and have a different perspective than our counterparts are used to," she added. "Failing to recognize it, I think, could spell disaster."

One of the main differences involves the clothing worn during meetings. Americans, Grotts said, have a tendency to dress more casually than businesspeople in countries such as Japan or China.

"There's a lot of people here (in the United States) who would have meetings with the Japanese wearing khakis and a polo," she added. "That's inappropriate. The Japanese are going to come in a three-piece suit. You should be in a suit as well."

China is one country where the customs differ greatly from those in the U.S. Grotts, who specializes in Chinese, Japanese and British business etiquette, said one should dress more conservatively in China, avoiding loud colors and flashy jewelry.

"Also, the color of white is really a no-no," she added. "White is the color of funerals in China, and you never want to wrap a package (in white) if you're giving a gift, because it means death." Avoid red too, Grotts said, as it is reserved for brides.

One of the most important meeting etiquette rules to remember is associated with business cards, an important part of business meetings and something you should never leave home without.

"When you're overseas, you're going to have two passports," Grotts said. "One the U.S., and the other, your business card."

In China, she added, business cards are handed out using two hands, with one's thumbs on either corner and the name facing toward the person receiving the card. Grotts, who is the former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco, also said that when conducting meetings in foreign countries, it is best to have your information translated into the language of the country and printed on the back.

"When you present it," she added, "you should present it on the (foreign) side. That way they can understand it."

Gestures and body language can be troublesome in some countries, Burke said.

Elena Brouwer, director of the International Etiquette Centre, agreed, noting that in Argentina, businesspeople are much more "touchy-feely" than most Americans are used to. She said often after shaking hands, Argentinian men will greet colleagues by touching their shoulders even if they have established relationships only through phone or e-mail correspondence.

Asians on the other hand, she noted, use very little body language and few gestures when speaking to others.

"They aren't animated when they speak," Brouwer said. "No matter where you are, you have to learn the protocol of the people that you're with, because manners is making other people feel comfortable."

One way to make foreign hosts feel at ease, according to Grotts, is by partaking in their culture, something important in China, especially when it comes to dining. Grotts said, unlike in America, it is a sign of rudeness to eat everything on your plate as it signals your host that you want more. She added that cleaning one's plate is a nonverbal way of showing dissatisfication.

"You should always leave a little on your plate in China when you're eating," Grotts said. "If you don't, they're going to keep giving you seconds, thirds and fourths. Oftentimes food is a way of showing them(selves) off and showing off their country, so for you not to partake in it is saying you don't want to partake in their culture."

When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do

Proper business meeting etiquette varies from country to country and even city to city. Tradeshow Week spoke with a number of experts on international business etiquette to get their tips on how to act in some of the world's busiest tradeshow cities.

Sydney, Australia

•   Business dress in Sydney is conservative. Men are expected to wear a dark business suit and tie, while women should stick with a dress or skirt and blouse.

•   Punctuality is the name of the game down under. Don't be surprised when your contacts skip the chit-chat and get straight to the point.

•   Titles are important, especially when dealing with political leaders. Make sure you call your contacts by their proper moniker.

•   Working breakfasts and 8 a.m. meetings are common in this country, although dinner meetings are becoming a popular way of building business relationships.

Sao Paulo, Brazil

•   Men should wear a three-piece suit to suggest they are an executive; two-piece suits are associated with office workers. Refrain from placing briefcases and purses on the ground as local superstition holds that your money will run away.

•   Extra-long handshakes are the norm in Brazil, and don't be surprised if your counterparts are more touchy-feely than you. Brazilians tend to frequently touch arms, elbows and backs. Watch your hand gestures, as some everyday American movements may have rude connotations.

•   Titles are important in this country, but often first names will be used in a business setting.

•   Brazilians are extremely punctual, but you should allow the host to start the meeting as casual conversations are expected beforehand.


•   Business dress in Germany is quite restrained. Men and women both should wear dark, solid colors with white shirts. Men always should wear ties, and keep them conservative.

•   Be on time for a meeting with German clients, as punctuality is respected. Tardiness may be seen as an insult to your hosts.

•   Germans tend to shake hands at both the beginning and end of a business meeting, and the handshake may be accompanied by a slight nod or bow. Make sure to reciprocate and look directly into your counterpart's eyes, as failure to do so could get you off on the wrong foot.

•   Germans tend to be very formal with titles. Even when colleagues have worked together for a lengthy period, they still greet one another with the formal "Herr." If a client should have more than one professional title, make sure to include all of them in introductions.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

•   Business dress is very conservative, and Muslim tradition dictates that most body parts on men and women should be covered. A jacket and tie is best for men; women should dress modestly, with high necklines and ankle-length hemlines.

•   Wait for your host to initiate contact in a greeting. Although some men will shake hands with women, most will not. When gesturing and shaking hands, do not use your left hand as it is considered unclean and used only for hygienic matters.

•   Gift-giving, although unnecessary, is often appreciated. Some gifts, however, should be avoided: pigskin products, alcohol or anything containing alcohol and gifts depicting or holding images of dogs.

•   In meetings, the one who asks the most questions tends to be the least important member of the group. The person in charge often is silently observing.