Etiquette: a quick overview to cultural difference

When away on business trip, a cultural offence can hurt feelings and annihilate your chances of success. Some concrete examples.

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Facebook Twitter Linkedin Travelling for business, that good first impression is also essential. However, many — often subtle — cultural differences exist between countries. From the colour of your clothes, through to shaking hands or simply proposing a toast, we'll tell you everything you need to make your stay a real success! 
Who of us has never worried about making that cultural mistake likely to impact our professional relationships?


While as a rule you shouldn’t wear traditional clothes, which may cause offence, do respect local customs. In Qatar for example — as in the vast majority of Muslim countries — businesswomen should wear loose clothing that covers the knees and shoulders. The classic suit and tie remains the best option for men. Avoid high heels as well. In many countries, including Japan, Korea, Turkey and Morocco, as well as Sweden and Switzerland, you must remove your shoes at the door, either to show respect or for reasons of hygiene.


Whether it's a business meeting or a business meal, punctuality is of course appropriate. That’s particularly the case in Germany, and even more so in Switzerland where your business partners may even take offence... if you come too early! Note that in many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, eating with the fingers is customary. But take care to do so only with the right hand; the left (with apologies to the left-handed!) is considered unclean as it’s used for cleaning yourself. 
In Japan, putting your chopsticks into your rice bowl is big no-no: the gesture reminds incense burnt during funerals. And if you’d like the chance to finish your meal, avoid crossing your chopsticks on the edge of the bowl or you’ll see the waiter come to clear the table. Toasting someone by raising your glass is not just a French tradition. In Turkey or China, however, you must take care to touch the other person's glass lower down if they are older, or are above you in the hierarchy, as a sign of respect. While in Germany or Switzerland, you must toast everyone present at the table.


It's true that in many countries any business meeting begins with a firm handshake, but in Muslim countries you must take care to always use the right hand. In Japan, by contrast, it's better to forego physical contact in favour of a slight bow of the head. Usually, in Asia, business card – but this works also for other exchanges – are given and received with two hands. 
When it comes to gestures, giving the thumbs-up in Iran is seen as a serious insult, rather than a positive gesture. In most Muslim countries, it is considered offensive to tap your feet or show the sole of your shoe to someone, even when sitting.


Choose your contact depending on the power distance favoured by each culture. This distance is considered weak in English-speaking, Germanic and Nordic countries but strong in the Latin countries of Europe, South American countries and the countries of black Africa. And if you do something wrong, the best solution is always to apologise, but always in your contact's language...


French: excusez-moi
German: entschuldigung sie
Arabic: aasef
Chinese: tévéchi
Korean: sillyehabnida 
Icelandic: afsakiô mig
Japanese: shitsureishimashita Russian: mne ochen 'zhal' Swedish: ursäkta Swiss German: es duet mr leid Turkish: üzgünüm
Published by Sylvie on 08/09/2017 Photo credit: © Fotolia / kikujungboy
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