Mind your (business) manners

Every country has a different business etiquette. Avoid culture clashes and you’re more likely to boost your company’s success overseas.

Did you know it’s rude to make prolonged eye contact in China? Or that you should avoid wearing yellow and green (the colours of the national flag) in Brazil? In Japan, it’s considered the height of bad manners to blow your nose in public, while gifts should be presented with both hands (and never just the left) in South Africa. When working or trading overseas, business etiquette goes beyond wearing a smart suit and arriving on time for meetings. Every country has its own social codes and expected standards of behaviour. Do your research before you visit and you can avoid common culture clashes that may offend your hosts and, ultimately, impact on the international relationships you need to build your business.
Lost in translation
Even the biggest companies can lack cultural awareness and are prime examples of the importance of building respectful relationships with international partners. When German car firm Daimler merged with American company Chrysler in 1998, their differences in style soon created problems. German formality and operating systems dominated, causing a reduction in employee satisfaction at Chrysler. By 2001, the company was operating at a loss and layoffs began. In 2007, Daimler sold Chrysler and ended the partnership.
For other businesses, the problem may reside in decoding what is actually meant in a conversation. In countries such as Japan and India, a cultural desire not to cause offence can result in a ‘yes’ actually meaning ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ – a real problem for British firms trying to pin down contracts or prices. In a situation like this, it’s best to ask for clarification and to listen for specific details that confirm your trading partner agrees to your terms.
Crossing the cultural divide
Just as you’d reach for a travel guide when planning an overseas trip, you should do your research on the cultural environment you will be stepping into. Many UK organisations and initiatives, such as Santander’s own Breakthrough International trade missions, can provide you with vital experience of the business etiquette within your target export market. Translation and interpreter services can help you communicate effectively with global partners. Chambers of Commerce hold lists of accredited translation services, or you could contact the Institute of Translation & Interpreting, which offers a directory of approved professionals. It’s also worth drawing on your in-house resources, such as international employees or foreign language speakers who may be able to offer insight into cultural differences.
For resources that you can access without a passport, look to the cultural awareness training run by experts such as WorldBusinessCulture and expatknowhow. You can also find actual and fictionalised case studies demonstrating common culture clashes in publications such as the Harvard Business Review.
When building any relationship, sensitivity to differences (and similarities) is key. A business partnership is no different, and its success will lie in your ability to communicate effectively. 

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK