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International business etiquette 101

  • Story Highlights
  • Learn key phrases before you go
  • Get plenty of rest before your trip
  • Find out if talking business at meals is culturally acceptable
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By Rachel Zupek
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In Spain, a business dinner will last well into the early morning hours -- many restaurants don't even open until 9 p.m. and don't get busy until 10 or 11 p.m.

Australians aren't impressed by a title or status -- they expect your work to speak for itself.

The Japanese aren't afraid to ask how much money you earn or how large your home is.

These are only three out of thousands of different customs, business protocols and social mores throughout the world. International business can be tricky; if you aren't prepared, your business deal can go down in flames.

Dana Persia, owner of DP Image Consulting, offers the following lessons in international business etiquette.

Before you go
1. Prepare. Do plenty of research on the business and personal etiquette of the particular country you are planning to visit. Purchase a travel book for the country you are going to visit and remember: The Internet is your friend.

2. Learn key phrases. It's always a smart move to learn several key phrases in the language of the country you'll visit. It's a nice way to bridge the gap between cultures -- and natives will appreciate the attempt.

3. Leave the attitude at home. Americans sometimes assume superior attitudes when interacting with foreign cultures -- for them it is "our way is the best way." Ditch this stance quickly -- you could be ignored or met with disapproval.

4. Blend in. In general, Americans dress differently, speak loudly and have distinct accents -- so it's best to try not to stand out more than you already will.

Jet lag: Affecting your business?
The last place you want jet lag to take its toll is during an important meeting or business outing. Persia offers these five tricks to deal with jet lag and still do business effectively.

Try to arrive a few days early to give your body a chance to adjust before important meetings or conferences.

Get plenty of rest before your trip. Jet lag is worse if you start out sleep-deprived.

Dehydration doesn't actually cause jet lag, but it does make symptoms worse. Drink plenty of water before, during and after your flight to counteract the dehydrating effects of dry cabin air. Avoid caffeine and alcohol for further dehydration.

Sleep on the plane if it's nighttime at your destination. Resist the urge if it's daytime there.

Set your watch to the new time before you leave. Once you reach your destination, try not to sleep until nighttime, no matter how tired you are. If you must sleep, take a short, one-hour "cat nap."

Different countries, different customs
It's common knowledge that etiquettes differ from person to city to country to continent; keeping all the customs straight can be a headache.

Persia offers these tips to deal with various traditions:

Gender roles
Gender etiquette plays a significant role not only in business, but overall in foreign travel. In some countries, where gender is rooted in the tenets of a particular religion, faux pas are often considered unforgivable.

For example, in the Arab world, shaking hands is mandatory in a business setting; but touching women in traditional, western dress is forbidden. In India, men and women shouldn't make physical contact in public other than handshaking. In Japan, older generations may not be comfortable shaking hands with Westerners and it's important that you don't get too close to them. In Argentina, women should initiate handshakes with men.

Talking business
If you're on business in Germany, leave the trade talk at the boardroom door. Business matters are usually discussed before or after the meal; never during.

Conversely, in China, it's OK to discuss business as long as it's not the main topic of conversation. Personal exchanges about children, spouses or other personal information are encouraged and welcomed.

Business cards
The business card exchange is extremely important in Japan -- almost ceremonial. Always give business cards with two hands and make a point to admire and examine the card. The more time you spend looking at it indicates the more respect you have for the person. In Italy, do not exchange business cards at social occasions; it is the norm at business functions and meetings.

Alcohol at meals
In Australia, alcohol is discouraged at business luncheons. Drinking moderately at business meals is acceptable in Germany; in Russia, you are expected to drink to establish closer relationships -- though again, in moderation. In France, avoid drinking hard liquor before meals or smoking cigars between courses -- the French feel it compromises the taste of the meal.

A standard to keep in mind for any gift you select is quality. If you give gifts with your company logo, it's better if the logo is discreet. Never give company logo gifts in Greece, Spain or Portugal. In general, be safe rather sorry and choose non-logo gifts. In China, it's considered rude to open a gift in front of the person who gave it. In Africa, gifts are opened immediately upon receipt. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

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