Cultural Etiquette for Business Deals

When I was in high school, I dated a girl from South America, which introduced me to a host of different cultural norms. After a family event one evening, I noticed her mother was giving a customary kiss on the cheek as guests were leaving. I thought to myself “Aha! I’ve seen this before!” and, when it was my turn, I gave her a kiss on each cheek, thinking smugly to myself that I’d made such a good impression. I turned my head and noticed my girlfriend’s family laughing at me. Apparently, a single kiss on the cheek was for goodbyes, but one on each cheek implied I was romantically interested in my girlfriend’s mother! I was horrified when it was explained to me and apologized profusely for making a fool of myself. Clearly, cultural norms vary greatly, and assuming you can wing it can get you into hot water, quickly. This is just as true for interpersonal relationships as it is in business, so knowing what the norms are and what is or isn’t okay is critically important to finalizing a deal.

It Starts with Respect

There are some general rules that apply for regions outside the west. For example, things tend to be more relationship based elsewhere, so the interpersonal interactions are more important. It’s also usually considered a sign of respect if you attempt to learn some of the local languages, so learning a few key words and phrases is appreciated. If your host then switches to English, however, you should continue in English. If you force forward and butcher their language, your gesture of respect will quickly turn into one of arrogance and may turn the tone of the meeting against you.
That said, there are various country-specific customs, some of which we’ll touch on here.


Fujiyoshida, Japan - April 16, 2015: Chureito Pagoda presents a great view of Mount Fuji with red pagoda in cherry blossom season

In North America, the business card has fallen somewhat out of vogue, with email and digital contact lists taking their place. In Japan, however, they are seen as very symbolically important, representing more of an extension of the person as opposed to merely a reference tool, so be sure to bring some with you. You should have both English and Japanese printed on the business card and present it using both hands while bowing.
While bowing may seem fairly straightforward, it actually has its own set of etiquette rules in Japan. First off, to bow properly, you bend at the waist and keep your back straight. Secondly, the deeper a bow, the more respectful – a business meeting calls for an angle of about 30 degrees from upright. It’s also customary to turn slightly to the left to avoid bumping heads.


Kolkata, India - January 20, 2013: Antique yellow Ambassador taxi cabs down the busy street on January 20, 2013 in West Bengal. First Ambassador was produced by the Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company in 1921

The most perplexing thing for foreigners in India is the local version of the head-nod. Instead of the western customs of shaking the head to mean “no” and forward-to-backward meaning yes, it is from side-to-side – akin to the motion that means “sort of” in western cultures. Confusingly, this can be used to mean both yes and no. While its origins are unclear, it’s generally assumed this is linked to a cultural standard in India where saying no is considered impolite, be it verbally or non-verbally. Knowing this, bear in mind that a response of “yes” does not necessarily mean “yes.” Apprehensive commitments or getting a response of “I’ll try” is generally accepted as a polite way of saying “no”   – this shouldn’t be misconstrued as rude or dishonest, however, it’s something to watch out for to ensure you are on the same page as your counterpart.

If you’re dining out in India, avoid beef, even if it’s on the menu. In Hinduism, the cow is a sacred animal, and this religion is practiced by nearly 80% of Indians. While ordering beef isn’t guaranteed to end your business dealings, it’s considered good form to be respectful of such customs.

Lastly, things in India move more slowly than many in the west are accustomed to. Be prepared to have several meetings and visits to achieve any success. Don’t get angry or upset at the different pace, things will get done eventually – patience is key.


Hong Kong harbour with city background

The concept of “face” is very important in China, and it’s considered a matter of respect to help others save face by not causing them embarrassment or strife. If there is a disagreement, it’s best not to voice your concerns publicly. Rather, it’s best to do so in a more private forum to help your host to “save face.”

Gift giving is an important part of Chinese culture and a very nuanced one. Gifts should be given according to seniority – the higher ranking the person, the more expensive their gift should be. The number 8 is considered lucky, so things given in groups of eight are welcomed; four, on the other hand, is associated with death, so it’s best to avoid anything that comes in fours. Lastly, gifts may be refused initially, possibly up to three times. This is normal and a way of showing humility, so don’t rescind your gift offer, but gently persist and it will be accepted. In turn, if you are offered a gift, it is considered polite to refuse it at first.

A Good Start

Obviously, this list of cultural norms is not exhaustive, and there are plenty of countries not touched on that have a variety of different customs. Hopefully, though, these pointers will help keep you from ending up with egg on your face when dealing with international counterparts.

Kevan Hartford

Kevan Hartford is a Toronto-based finance professional working in asset management.