While the global work environment is more fluid and interconnected than ever, localities retain their cultural nuances, both social and professional. Being aware and respectful of those particulars can help establish trust and facilitate successful global business dealings.
Before your next — and especially your first — business meeting in Shanghai, London or Rio de Janeiro, brush up on the professional culture basics.
BBC Capital consulted etiquette experts and handbooks around the world to bring you a look at the must-know information on how to greet colleagues and clients, how to behave in meetings and at meals and what to expect when doing business in seven of the world’s leading business centres.
Greetings: Brazilians are regarded the world around for their warmth and friendliness, something that is also evident in the country’s business culture. Brazilians often stand close when talking and it is common for them to touch the person — on the shoulder, for example — they are conversing with. People often greet each other (particularly women) with light cheek kisses, even in business environments. Men often will shake hands. Take time to personally greet and speak with each person and make a special point to say goodbye to each person individually.
Schedules: Schedules tend to be flexible in Brazil, with business meetings sometimes starting later than planned. But to be safe, be on time. The Brazilian work schedule includes a significant number of federal holidays and generous allotted vacation time. People tend to take their time off — and they savour it. They do not expect (or expect others) to do business during time off, so be prepared to work around holiday schedules.
Meetings: Brazilians are social, preferring face-to-face communication over emails or phone calls. Personal relationships are of high importance in Brazilian business life, so conversations are likely to veer into what some cultures might consider private topics, such as personal lives and family activities. Expect these topics to come up, even in meetings with multiple attendees.
Meals: Brazilians tend to keep up appearances, scheduling business meals at upscale, talked-about restaurants. Meals can stretch for hours — there’s no such thing as rushing a meal in Brazil. Lunches also can start in the mid to late afternoon. The host is the one expected to bridge the conversation from business to personal.
In The United Kingdom
Greetings: British people conduct themselves in a polite and reserved manner in business. People are mindful of personal space and do not stand or speak too close. They also greet each other with handshakes, but they should be lighter than the more firm handshake expected when doing business in the United States.
Schedules: The British also tend to stick to schedules and expect punctuality in all matters of business, including meal times. Be careful not to schedule meetings at times you think you could be late arriving. The British workday tends to follow a clear schedule, with many professionals heading home at 17:00 or 17:30.
Meetings: British society is relatively striated and business structures have a similarly clear hierarchy. People expect protocol to be followed: address the proper people and go through the established channels when planning and conducting meetings. Meetings should be scheduled in advance and have a specific objective, which should be outlined in the meeting invitation.
Meals: The British practice formal table manners, including properly positioning utensils on the plate when done (at 5:25). You might also be invited to attend a cricket match or regatta in lieu of business meal. These are formal events and attendees should dress accordingly, in professional attire.
Greetings: People shake hands when meeting, often with slight bows. Age and rank are clearly noted and respected in China. People introduce themselves in line with this — that is, the most senior individuals are greeted first. Because the Chinese value the group over the individual, full names are written with family name first. The Chinese also might initially introduce themselves this way. People also tend to introduce themselves with their full titles and company name — and you should follow suit.
Schedules: Punctuality is appreciated and respected in business. Arriving early for a dinner, however, is considered a sign of hunger and is therefore rude. Show up about five minutes before a meeting or meal is scheduled to begin.
Meetings: Chinese culture is reserved compared with other cultures around the world. As such, the Chinese may come off as standoffish in professional gatherings. Meetings are kept civil and respectful in a formal way — and they stick to business. Chinese meetings are highly structured, so interrupting is considered rude. Because Chinese are hyper aware of seniority and rank, seating should be arranged with this in mind.
Meals: The Chinese are very hospitable and lavish when hosting guests, including in business. It is not uncommon to throw banquets for guests (a gesture that should be returned at some point) and for business associates to argue over who will pick up a check. There will likely be frequent toasts during meals. The protocol: clink your glass below the rim of someone of a higher rank. Do not serve your own drink, but make sure to keep the glasses of those next to you full. Because dishes are usually served on a lazy Susan, you should serve yourself from the dish directly in front of you. Slurping soup and burping at the table are acceptable, so don’t be put off. People leave food on their plate to show they are satisfied. It is also common practice for Chinese hosts to stay until the guest of honour leaves.
In The United States
Greetings: People introduce themselves by name and with a firm handshake to everyone present. Business culture in the US is generally mindful of the separation between professional and private life. While pleasantries and a brief exchange asking how someone is doing are common, conversation quickly moves to business. Similarly, Americans are very conscious about personal space and tend to give more than in European or Latin countries. Close-talking is generally uncomfortable in American professional settings.
Schedules: Whether on phone calls, to meals or dinner, promptness is expected. Many people in the US consider being on time as actually being late in business settings, so be sure to arrive early. That said, expect a straggler or two. Business dinners generally follow the conclusion of the workday and tend to start as late as 19:00.
Meetings: In most business settings, Americans schedule meeting times and stick to them. Conversation is usually kept on-topic and sticks to business, with light conversation before or after a meeting wraps. While it varies by industry, Americans tend to dress conservatively, although many workplaces in the US have adopted business casual dress policies.
Meals: Americans are open to scheduling and doing business at any meal, including breakfast. But people watch the clock, including during business lunches, which are typically kept to one-hour’s time. Don’t be put off by your host checking his or her watch at regular intervals, but answering calls or checking phones during a meal is impolite. Wait until everyone is served before eating. Americans are known to be big eaters, so feel free to take seconds if offered. Keep in mind that smoking is unpopular indoors the US, not to mention illegal in most settings where a business meal would take place. To be safe (and avoid potential judgment) wait until the meal has concluded to smoke outside. Follow the host’s lead when it comes to ordering alcohol.
Greetings: People shake hands when they meet and often also greet each other with a small, polite bow. Singaporeans address each other formally — and you should do the same. Business cards should be offered and received with two hands.
Schedules: Tardiness is considered disrespectful. Be on time, at the least. Arriving early is appreciated in Singapore, be it for business or social activities.
Meetings: Efficiency is the goal, so meetings and dealings often are fast-paced. Singaporeans are direct in their discussions, even when the subject is about money. People dress conservatively, especially in business settings. Rank is important and dictates how people interact in meetings. For example, people avoid disagreeing outright with someone of a higher rank.
Meals: Dinners are common, but generally they are treated more like social gatherings than business dealings. Asian cutlery, like chopsticks and porcelain spoons, usually are presented and should be utilized. Singapore has a sizable Muslim population, so be careful not to use your left hand to pass anything at the table or to eat, even if you are left handed. A small bowl of water and towel are often given to each diner for hand washing. Dip the towel into the bowl and use it to clean your fingertips, as well as around your mouth if necessary. If a lemon is provided, rub it on your fingers and then dip your fingers into the bowl.
In The United Arab Emirates
Greetings: Status is important in the UAE, so the most senior or oldest person should be greeted first — with their titles. A lingering handshake is the expected method for introduction. Do not pull away from the handshake, even if it seems lengthy. It is not uncommon for someone to take another person’s hand when showing then something or leading them to a destination.
Schedules: For most companies, the official workweek runs Sunday through Thursday to avoid working on Friday, the Muslim holy day. While locals might generally follow more relaxed schedules and keep people waiting, they expect foreigners to be prompt. The Muslim call to prayer sounds out five times per day and can interrupt business dealings. Expect your hosts to slip out for this, and wait patiently for them to return.
Meetings: As cultural protocol dictates, women should cover themselves when it comes to dress, even in business settings. Men also tend to be covered from neck to elbows and down to the knees. Men should be mindful to not maintain too much eye contact with women. Business deals often happen among family and friends, and honour is a driving force in business. First meetings are typically meant to establish relationships and build trust, so business should come second to forging personal relationships in your initial meetings.
Meals: Hospitality is taken seriously in the Middle East — to the point that some meals or events might seem extravagant to outsiders. People do not shy from entertaining in their homes, but they also hold business meals at restaurants. Touching or passing food or eating with your left hand is to be avoided. Keep in mind that alcohol consumption in public is illegal in the UAE, as in most Islamic countries. Business breakfasts are common. When meetings are one-on-one, however, if your host offers you coffee, you should refuse. It might seem odd, but it is a cultural tradition. Coffee should only be accepted if it is already set out or presented.