Around the world in 8 unusual business customs


In Jules Verne's famous globe-trotting novel, we are introduced to a man who epitomises cool-headed, clever-thinking business travel. Despite encountering cruel customs and some unusual social mores, timetabling upsets and climate challenges, he deals with every seemingly-impossible situation deftly and decisively. "As for Phileas Fogg," Verne writes, "it seemed just as if the typhoon were a part of his programme."

In today's global economy, we can learn a thing or two from Mr Fogg. As with most things, preparation is key, which is why we've compiled a whistle-stop tour of unusual business practice to steer you safely around faux pas and some seriously odd foreign dealings when conducting business outside of your comfort zone.

1. China

Think you're on first name terms? Think again. Informality has no place in the Chinese boardroom so always address clients here by their surname and title or risk some serious offending. Just to make things a little bit trickier, Chinese names are written the other way round to here in the West - you'll always see a surname precede the first name.

2. Japan

You shouldn't address a superior by his or her name in Japan either. Use their title whenever you can. Unfortunately, this is just the start of your cultural headaches because it's also worth bearing in mind that the Japanese will also be insulted if you:

  • don't give their business cards due reverence (by which we mean receiving it with both hands and giving the appearance of studying it very carefully...)

  • blow your nose in public

  • wear trousers (women)

  • wear killer heels (women)

  • wear anything brightly coloured (women)

  • don't get absolutely wasted on whiskey upon successful completion of your business

3. Dubai

In most of the Islamic Middle East, it’s the norm to keep visitors waiting, so don't get upset by your host's apparent bypass of punctuality. Similarly, you can count on your meeting being interrupted at some point to sign papers or take another call, as it's custom to mix business with pleasure. One more thing: be polite by enquiring about the health of your host's kids, particularly sons. But never EVER ask after their wives.

4. Spain

You can count on this country permitting business transactions to be pretty relaxed affairs, but beware: a casual chat over a bottle of Estrella Damm could be construed as a binding agreement. Verbal commitments are often as good as paper contracts in this part of the world, so watch your words carefully!

5. Argentina

It's all about allowing invasions of personal space in this neck of the woods. Argentinians are close-talkers and aren't averse to touching your arm or clothes to make their point more forcibly. Let it happen - shying away will only appear rude.

6. Saudi Arabia

Two things here, which also apply in most other Muslim countries. Ladies, avoid a handshake. Devout Muslims do not touch non-family members of the opposite sex so simply smile politely and verbally communicate your greetings. And ALWAYS ACCEPT TEA. Off caffeine? That's no excuse. Need the loo? Cross your legs and still say yes to the cuppa. To refuse is the epitome of impoliteness and will see you branded as uncivilised and - what's worse - untrustworthy. Slurp it up.

7. France

Being stand-offish scores points in Gallic culture. Unlike the enthusiastic Yanks, the French tend to equate a lack of reserve and openness with being disingenuous. Restrain yourselves - and reap the boardroom rewards.

8. India

Don't put your foot in it. Literally. If you accidentally brush or step on someone’s foot, say sorry immediately. In India, feet are considered unclean, which is why leaving your shoes outside the door is common practice.

Bear all the above in mind and your business should be wrapped up smoothly. Bon voyage and may the global etiquette gods be with you!


Merchant Money is sponsoring the Speed Networking area at The Business Show on 27-28th November - make sure you get up to speed on business customs and etiquette.

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