International Business Etiquette (Part 2)

More and more business is being conducted abroad, so it’s a good idea to know about the culture before you go so that you don’t commit a major faux pas. For this and the next issue, our Viewpoint column will touch on some of the major cultures around the world and what is accepted, expected and just plain frowned upon. What’s proper in one country may not be in the next. Avoid mistakes that can lead to a less than favorable impression and reduce the chances of success when traveling on business.

By Terry Wohlers

"Viewpoint" is a column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the January/February 2008 issue.

In Part 1, I discussed business etiquette in Japan, China, Germany, France and Portugal. In this issue, I will continue with Finland, England, South Africa, Australia and Israel. Also, I will share my thoughts on international gift giving.


Finnish is what everyone speaks, although most Finns can speak English flawlessly. They take 12 years of it in school (before college) and speak it whenever they deal with anyone from outside Finland. English is the official language at some of the largest companies, such as ABB.

Finns are among the shyest people anywhere that I’ve been. At one time, there were more mobile phones in Finland per capita than anywhere in the world and it still may be true today. My theory is that they are often too shy to face one another, so they’d prefer to use the phone, even if only a few meters separate them. When I shared my theory with some Finnish friends, they laughed, but did not deny that it may be true.

Many years ago, I was presenting to a group of managers at a large manufacturing company in Finland. After the first hour, I was concerned that no one was asking questions or offering comments. This was my first experience of this type with the Finns, so it was a little puzzling to me. In an effort to engage them, I asked each person in the room to introduce themselves, tell what they do and say what they hoped to get out of the three-hour program. I was hoping that this might break the ice. Several of them stood up and left the room, but later returned. I found that they were too uncomfortable to speak, so this was their way of dealing with it. A young instructor from outside of Finland once told me that he quit teaching at a university in Finland, in part, because he was unable to get his students involved in discussions, ask questions, etc.

I have good friends in Finland and the people and country are great, but they are, indeed, shy. In the evening, after a strong beverage or two, they usually come out of their shells and often make up for their silence, in a very good way.

Like the Germans, the Finns enjoy a drink or two in the morning. At the airport in Helsinki, I noticed an elderly couple sipping on large beers and it was 08:00. Less than two hours later on the plane, nearly every adult in sight had ordered wine, Scotch or some other alcoholic beverage.

If you enjoy camping, you can do so legally anywhere in Finland, even on private property.


England is more formal than the U.S. and appearance is very important. The private schools in England teach manners and self-discipline. Even so, comparing the formalities of England to the U.S. is a bit like comparing the East Coast of the U.S. to the more casual West Coast. There are differences, but they are not significant. To be safe, dress conservatively with dark colors when traveling and doing business in England. It’s best to wear a business suit when attending conferences. You will likely be in the minority if you do not.

The English tend to make decisions somewhat slower than in the U.S. Respecting the privacy of the English is appreciated. Gift giving is typically not a part of doing business.

With all due respect to the English, what you hear about the food in England is true. However, you cannot go wrong with the fish and chips at an old English pub. Also, the atmosphere can be fantastic. At pubs and nightclubs, it is a good practice to avoid talking loudly and behaving disruptively.

Other than being more expensive (£1 = $2) and having to navigate on the left side of the road, it’s easy to visit the country and a treat for most Americans.

South Africa

This is one of my favorite places to visit. Americans and Europeans (especially the British) fit right in because there are not a lot of differences. In many regions of South Africa, English is the second language, after Afrikaans, but you’d barely know, except for an accent. English is the preferred language for business and government. Nine other languages are spoken in the country, with Zulu being the most popular due to the large Zulu population. All 11 are considered official languages of South Africa.

The people of South Africa are among the most friendly I have encountered anywhere around the world. Whether it is a convenience store clerk or someone in a restaurant, people greet you with kind words and a genuine smile. With South Africa’s turbulent past, one might not know what to expect. Apartheid disappeared as recently as 1992, and the first truly democratic election in 1994 (when the first black president, Nelson Mandela, was elected), I was interested in seeing how people would treat one another on my first trip there in 2000. It was a pleasant surprise to see such upbeat attitudes and consideration among those I encountered.

Vegetarians do not get by too easily in South Africa. It’s not unusual to have a meal with two or three different kinds of meat. People often ask me if they serve a lot of wild game, but they typically do not. It’s mostly domestic meat, such as beef, pork, chicken and lamb.


I’ve spent much less time in Australia and I would like to return. Overall, it is an easy place to visit. I’ve recognized some similarities between the Australians and South Africans. I especially like that they are somewhat rustic in nature and anything but supercilious. They are easy going and know how to enjoy themselves and entertain visitors from abroad.


People in Israel tend to be more intense than those in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world. I believe that most of it comes from the history with its neighbors. Virtually all adult-age people serve in the military, which likely adds to this intensity.

The unwritten dress code in Israel is about the most casual anywhere. It’s rare to see anyone wearing a business suit or even a tie. Slacks and a collared shirt is about as formal as it gets.

Unlike much of Europe, the Israelis do not consume much alcohol. Your hosts might have a beer or glass of wine, but typically not much more.

Israeli’s are among the brightest and well-educated people you will meet. English is the second language after Hebrew, yet their English speaking skills are flawless.

Years ago, I read an article in USA Today stating that the tiny country of Israel has more inventions to its credit than any other country in the world, except for the U.S. This speaks volumes about the intellect and creativity of the Israelis.

Gift Giving

As with many parts of the world, it’s important to consider a suitable gift for your host or hosts. Giving gifts is especially important in Japan, so you’ll want to plan ahead. Space is a consideration in some cities, such as Tokyo, so a consumable or physically small gift is best. It does not need to be valuable, but brand names are appreciated. Logo items are okay, if the logo is subtle, and custom-made gifts are suitable. The use of additive fabrication opens up many possibilities for manufacturing special gifts that were too expensive or impossible to make years ago.

In China, it is important to give a gift privately, without others around. In the 1980s, the government of China did not permit its people to accept gifts of value from foreign visitors. This law may no longer apply, but the decades of practice may cause your Chinese host to hesitate, or worse, not accept the gift.

Of all regions, the fewest gifts are given in the UK. This may be due, in part, to the line that is drawn between business and personal relationships. Gift giving in business may be perceived as crossing the line.

In 1993 on a commercial flight in the U.S., I sat near top managers of the Wahl Clipper Corp., a company founded by Leo J. Wahl in 1911. I sat next to Leo T. Wahl, then responsible for Asian and North American exports. We had a good conversation about gift giving when traveling abroad, especially to Japan. A few days after returning home from the trip, I received from him an excellent publication titled International Business Gift-Giving Customs: A Guide for American Executives by Dr. Kathleen Reardon of the University of Connecticut. The publication has served me well as a guide to gift giving in most regions of the world. The Parker Pen Company published it in 1981, yet most of the facts and ideas remain applicable and helpful today.

Before traveling abroad, it is important to do your homework. Considering proper business etiquette increases your chances of a successful trip and shows that you respect the customs of the country that you are visiting. And, bringing the right gift can help strengthen the business relationship. TCT

Industry consultant and analyst Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). Wohlers has provided consulting assistance to more than 150 organizations in 20 countries For more information, visit