International Business Etiquette (Part 1)

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.

Terry Wohlers

"Viewpoint" is a column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the November/December 2007 issue.

Most people are kind and helpful wherever you go. I’ve heard more than one story where people in a particular country are unhelpful, behave as though they have a chip on their shoulder or are just plain rude. For the most part, that’s not been my experience. It is true that you can find unhappy people about anywhere you go. However, if you smile and greet someone warmly, chances are good that they will reciprocate, no matter where you are. People are people.

I’ve managed to learn five or so languages (impressive, huh), but can only utter a few words in each of them (not so impressive). People in most countries around the world can speak English, to some extent. Exceptions are Japan, China and a few other places where it can vary, depending upon who it is you encounter. Many professionals and highly educated individuals in these countries can communicate in English to some degree.

You will find differences from country to country. Words that mean something in the U.S. may mean something entirely different elsewhere, so be careful. For example, in most parts of Europe, the term “mail” often means e-mail. If you are referring to physical “snail” mail, it is advised that you use “post” or “postal” when referring to it, as in “Would you please e-mail your postal address to me?”

Americans go on vacations. Most of the rest of the world goes on holiday. To us, holidays are specially designated days of the year, such as Independence Day or Thanksgiving. “Bathroom” or “restroom” is mostly American terminology. Other countries refer to it as the toilet. In some countries, you will see “WC” near the entrance of men’s and women’s rooms. WC stands for water closet.

In the U.S., we refer to our mobile phones as cell phones. In most other countries, they are called mobile phones.

Americans use the imperial system of measurement, whereas most of the rest of the world uses the metric system. Therefore, do not assume that those outside the U.S. understand inches, feet, temperatures in Fahrenheit, gallons and so on. When communicating with them, use the metric system.

Except for the U.S., most other countries use the military clock when expressing the time of the day. When communicating with people outside the U.S., don’t assume that they know what 9:30 p.m. means. To be safe, express it as 21:30. Morning times, as in 7:00 a.m., should be expressed as 07:00. Likewise, be careful with written dates. In most countries, 11-12-07 means the 11th day of December 2007, not November 12, 2007. Sometimes, you will see 11 December 2007, which is a good way to express the date and eliminates the possibility of confusion.


The following applies to Japan, but much of it also applies to other countries in Asia. Asia in general, and Japan in particular, is more formal than most other countries around the world. This applies to your business attire, so be sure to pack business suits because you’ll need them.

The formalities in Japan extend to how a visitor should refer to a local individual. Generally, refer to your host or acquaintance as Mr. [last name], as in Mr. Kuzuki or Kuzuki-san. My experience has been that you do not use a first (given) name until the individual invites you to use it. This has changed some over the past 15 to 20 years, but not a lot.

Exchanging business cards is ceremonial in nature in Japan and other Asian countries. Never casually or quickly hand a business card to someone. Instead, present your card to the individual with two hands as you receive their card with two hands. Study the contents of the card carefully and for some time. This shows that you are genuinely interested in the individual. And, do not write on the business card in front of the person that gave it to you. It would be like defacing an important document. Also, do not place it immediately in your pocket. If you’re at a table, lay it (or them, if you receive multiple cards) near you on the table for the duration of the meeting.

If possible, have your business card translated to Japanese before traveling to Japan. The translation is appreciated and you will likely receive favorable comments on it, especially if it is done well. It is important to have a second individual that is fluent in Japanese check the translation before having them printed.

Individual status is significant in Japan, China and other Asian countries. The most important person in your group or company should enter the room first, the next most important second and so on. This can be tricky because Westerners are not accustomed to ranking themselves in this way. The lead person should serve as the primary spokesperson for important discussions.

It can take years to build trust and a relationship with the Japanese to the point where they are comfortable doing business with you. Once established, it can become a relationship that can last a very long time.

It is well established that the Japanese make group decisions. It can take a lot of time before decisions are made and shared. This can be frustrating to the foreigner, so be patient.

Avoid pouring a beverage for yourself. Someone else at the table will do it for you. Likewise, you should pour the beverage for your Japanese hosts and friends.

If a meeting begins at 08:00, plan to be there on time, preferably a few minutes ahead of time. The Japanese are on time for everything and they expect others to be prompt as well.

You will never hear the Japanese say the word “no.” However, it is important for visitors to recognize signs that mean no. When you hear “It is very difficult” or something similar, it probably means no.

Most toilet facilities do not offer paper towels to dry your hands, so consider carrying a cloth with you. Also, avoid blowing your nose in public. It’s considered taboo in Japan.


When talking, minimize hand gestures and pointing. The Chinese do not use their hands when speaking, so it may be districting to them.

Dress conservatively and use subtle colors. Blue jeans are acceptable in China, but not for business.

Always arrive on time or early when attending meetings in China. Minimize business discussions at meals. It is okay to not finish your meal because it shows that you were served plenty of food.

If you are hosting your Chinese friends in the U.S., think twice before arranging a dinner at your home. The Chinese view it as less of an honor than outside entertainment.


Germans are more formal than Americans when doing business and live in a more rules-oriented society than we do in the U.S. That’s not to say they are not flexible or effective in business situations. When in Germany, address others by Mr., Dr., etc., especially if they are older than you. Wear a business suit at conferences, expositions and meetings.

When presenting in Germany for the first time more than 20 years ago, the German audience caught me by surprise at the conclusion. Rather than a traditional round of applause, they tapped their knuckles on the tabletops. At the time, I did not know what it meant and feared the worse. I later found out that they often do it instead of clapping their hands.

Germans enjoy a fine glass of beer, even in the morning and at lunch. It’s not unusual for an exhibitor at an exhibition to serve beer throughout the day. Having a beer at a business lunch is normal. Most Germans wisely refrain from drinking alcohol before driving an automobile. Germans are polite, and manners and good behavior are important to them.

Germans drive faster than people in most other parts of the world. For a bit of insight on the subject, see the blog commentary at Enter “drive fast” in the search box at the right.


The French do not like to waste time getting to business. However, they may take time when making decisions, leaving no rock unturned. Also, it may take some time before they are comfortable referring to visitors on a first name basis. The French recognize personal achievements, especially advanced degrees.

To some extent, the French have an obsession with history. Change is not something that they embrace, although I have worked with people from France that are not afraid of change.


When an individual from Portugal says he will meet you at 09:00, he or she really means 09:15, 09:20, or even later. The same is true with times published in programs for conferences and meetings, shuttle pickups and so on. It drives the Japanese and Germans crazy because they are among the most prompt in the world. Yet, the Portuguese are great hosts and among the most friendly and helpful people you will find anywhere. Just don’t hurry to be on time because you’ll then have to wait.

Next month, I will continue the discussion with Finland, England, South Africa, Australia and Israel. Also, I will share a few thoughts on gift giving. 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