Navigate Your Market Successfully: Business Travel AbroadBusiness Culture
Considerations for Overseas Business Culture
Flexibility and cultural adaptation should be the guiding principles for business travel abroad. Some of the cultural differences U.S. companies most often face involve the following: business styles, attitudes toward business relationships and punctuality, negotiating styles, gift-giving customs, greetings, significance of gestures, meanings of colors and numbers, and conventions regarding the use of titles. Prepare for your overseas visits by reading travel guides located in most libraries and bookstores, and take advantage of our U.S. Commercial Service resources listed further below.
Tips for Business Travel Abroad
Greetings, Business Card Protocol
- Get to know proper use of names and titles. In many countries (including Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom), it is appropriate to use titles until use of first names is suggested. First names are seldom used by those doing business in Germany. Visiting business people should use the surname preceded by the title. Titles such as “Herr Direktor” are sometimes used to indicate prestige, status, and rank. In Thailand, however, people address one another by first names and reserve last names for very formal occasions and written communications. In Belgium, it is important to address French-speaking business contacts as “Monsieur” or “Madame,” whereas Flemish-speaking contacts should be addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” To misuse these titles is a great faux pas.
- Use the appropriate greetings. When cultural lines are being crossed, something as simple as a greeting can be misunderstood. Traditional greetings include shaking hands, hugging, kissing, and placing the hands in praying position. The “wrong” greeting can lead to an awkward encounter.
Know business card protocol. Card giving is a key part of business protocol. In Japan, for example, the Western practice of accepting a business card and pocketing it immediately is considered rude. The proper approach is to carefully look at the card after accepting it, and acknowledge with a nod that the information has been digested, and perhaps make a relevant comment or ask a polite question.
Understand varied approaches to gift-giving customs. In some cultures such as Japan, gifts are expected, and failure to present them is considered an insult. In other countries, though, the presentation of a gift may be viewed as an offense. Business executives also need to know when to present a gift such as on the initial visit or afterward); where to present the gift (in public or privately); what type of gift to present; and how many gifts are appropriate.
- Speak a few words in your buyer’s native tongue. Your buyers or business associates will appreciate the effort. Words of welcome on your website, and maybe a currency converter, will further demonstrate your interest in doing business in mutually respectful ways.
Building Contacts, Staffing Up, and Negotiating
Always answer queries politely and promptly. Don’t delay when responding to e-mail, fax, and telephone requests for price lists, quotes, and other information. Build your own marketing list from the contacts. Ask for each customer’s communication preferences. The query you ignore today might have been a source of future business.
Get an intern or hire a new employee. As business develops with overseas customers, consider recruiting a student intern or recent college graduate who speaks the language and understands the business culture
Attend a trade show. Find one in your industry that’s attended by foreign buyers. You can make good contacts—even sales—and test the waters before heading overseas. Also, consider attending an international trade show in your industry. U.S. embassies abroad often staff a national pavilion where U.S. sellers can meet foreign buyers.
Plan your negotiating strategy. Negotiating is more complicated in international transactions because of the potential for cultural misunderstandings. It is essential to understand the importance of rank in the other country, who the decision makers are, and the business style of the foreign company. Also, understand the nature of agreements there, and the significance of gestures and negotiating etiquette
Start with what you know. Learn from your domestic customers. Apply cultural knowledge gained from people from different social and ethnic backgrounds than yourself.
Diverse Cultures, Different Concepts of Time
Be patient, few markets have a faster business pace than the United States; many are slower.
Be aware of direct vs. casual business styles. In some countries, business people have a very direct style, while in others they are subtler. Personal relationships may be more valued than is customary in most U.S. business relationships. For example, in the Middle East, indulging in small talk before engaging in the business at hand is standard practice.
Take time to develop personal relationships. This is especially true with distributors or large-volume buyers. Remembering birthdays and other notable events is a good intercultural business practice.
Find out the attitudes toward punctuality. For example, Romanians, Japanese, and Germans are very punctual, whereas people in many Latin countries have a more relaxed attitude toward time. The Japanese consider it rude to be late for a business meeting but acceptable—even fashionable—to be late for a social occasion. In Guatemala, though, people often arrive from 10 minutes early to 45 minutes late for a luncheon appointment.
Get HelpExport.gov, the U.S. federal government’s export assistance portal, links to many resources, including the following:
- Before heading overseas on a business development trip, view the Country Commercial Guides which provide the latest market intelligence for more than 140 countries. The Business Travel Information chapter includes a wealth of information to help prepare you for international travel:
- Local Time
- Business Customs
- Visa Info
- Currency/Currency Converter
- Telephone Use
- Web resources
- Health/Medical Insurance
- Travel advisory
- An important next step is to contact your nearest U.S. Commercial Service office or locations at U.S. embassies and consulates in your country of interest. They can counsel you on business protocol, market intelligence, regulatory issues, and help find and prescreen qualified buyer for you to meet. That knowledge is very likely to have a positive effect on your overseas travel