Business Meeting Cultures Around the World
July 27, 2017All, International Business
How we conduct ourselves in meetings is important worldwide. If you have business in another country, it’s a good idea to plan ahead. Know who you are meeting with. Learn foreign customs to quickly build trust in your business relationships. Knowing the country’s business etiquette can make or break a successful business meeting. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of some peculiarities of different business cultures, so you can be sure to leave the best impression on your new potential partners.
North American Meeting Cultures
Canada Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocols
Canadians are more direct than American and British people. A strong handshake and strong eye contact will immediately set everyone more at ease. Stand at least two feet away. Conversation should be exchanged quickly. “How are you?” and “Nice to meet you” are fine. Other topics may be quick references to sports such as hockey, football, golf, or tennis.
Do not compare Canada to the U.S. Do not discuss any personal topic. Do not talk about conflicts between French and English Canada. Do not wear any scent. This is important for men and women. Many Canadians have asthma or allergies. Avoid perfume, hairspray, shaving cream, and after shave lotion.
Canada is a bilingual country. Many meetings are in both French and English. It is a good idea to have a translator present, if you don’t speak either language. Your business card should have both French and English translations. In the province of Quebec, the meeting will most likely be entirely in French. Avoid speaking in a foreign language in the presence of others who don’t understand what is being said, it is considered rude.
Be on time to a meeting in Canada. Punctuality is a priority.
United States Culture: Planning and Protocols
Many American meetings begin with a handshake and a few minutes of small talk. Small talk may be as polite as “How are you?”, “How was your trip?” or in some locations, “How is your family?” The best responses are simple and said with a smile, “Fine, thank you. And you?”, “Very nice”, or “They’re doing well. Thank you for asking”.
It is not necessary to shake hands with everyone at the meeting. It is important to shake hands with the person conducting the meeting. If there is a large group of attendees, some Chairpersons will arrange for the attendees to introduce themselves. Simply give your name, your job title, and your company if you’re from an external organization.
Prior to the meeting, you may receive an agenda which in some companies is loosely followed. In other companies, the agenda may be followed exactly. However, it is used mostly to keep time, so the meeting can be concluded (finished) in a succinct (short) amount of time. Most meetings are set for one hour. You may also receive a package of information before the meeting. Read through all materials and be prepared to share ideas.
Americans want to hear your opinion. Speak up. Be direct. It is ok to disagree. Junior employees may disagree with senior employees. This is accepted. It is a way to show their commitment to their company and may lead to promotion in some companies. In some companies, decisions are made at the top. However, in many companies today, decisions are made as a company. Everyone contributes.
Dress is much more relaxed than in other countries. In some companies, business suits may be replaced by jeans or casual trousers, but only on Fridays. Sometimes “Casual Friday” is used as a fundraising event for a company’s corporate giving projects. In other words, to have the privilege (honor) of wearing jeans on a Friday, one must pay $5. This money goes toward helping others.
Many companies allow their employees “paid time off” to volunteer in their community. The employee is representing their company outside the office and can build houses, read to young children, or plant a garden.
In other companies, such as those in the high tech industry, every day is casual. It is ok to ask the company if they have a dress code. At your first meeting, a business suit is appropriate.
Latin American Meeting Cultures
Costa Rica Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocol
Costa Rica is a conservative country. A handshake is common. Costa Ricans want to establish a friendly relationship. They will ask a few questions to get to know you. Good topics include: children, history, and art. Even politics is a safe subject in Costa Rica. Don’t talk about personal criticism or religion.
Be on time to meetings. Costa Ricans are the most punctual people in Central America. If your meeting is set for the lunch hour, it is even more important to be on time. Costa Ricans allow themselves only a short midday break. They do not linger over their meal like other countries in Central America.
Print all business materials including business cards in English and Spanish. Include titles on your business cards as titles are important. When speaking to someone from Costa Rica, use their business title. For example, a Ph.D or physician should be called Doctor, a lawyer should be called Abogado, and teachers are called Profesor.
Panama Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocol
Like Costa Rica, titles are important and should be on business cards. Business cards should be printed in English and Spanish. As in Costa Rica, address (speak to) a person using their title. If they do not have a professional title, then it is best to use Senor for Mr.; Senora for Mrs.; and Senorita for Miss. If you are meeting for the first time, a handshake is common. Only old friends embrace.
Similar to North American countries, small talk is traditional. Safe topics are family, hobbies, and sports. Do not talk about politics, race problems, or the Canal Zone.
It is rare for women to be in positions of authority. Foreign women should explain they are representing their company.
Argentina Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocol
Dress to impress is the motto for business in Argentina. Wear proper business attire such as a dark suit and tie for men and for women dark suits or skirts and a white blouse.
At your first meeting, a handshake is common. Be confident. As in other countries, small talk helps to create positive intentions. Safe topics in Argentina are soccer, history and culture, or home and children. Do not talk about religion or the Peron years.
In a more formal process than other countries, guests are escorted (taken) to their chairs after the initial greeting. The two senior executives are seated opposite each other. It is best to lean back in your chair in a relaxed manner. Maintain eye contact, but limit gestures.
Arrange meetings with top executives, they make the decisions. Meetings may last much longer than in other countries. There is not a rush to finish a meeting without everything negotiated. Argentines are excellent negotiators. They will not come to agreement too quickly or too easily. Make sure all agreements are in writing.
Confirm meetings one week in advance and be on time. When scheduling, be aware you must be on time, but your counterpart may be up to thirty minutes late. It helps to have an Argentine contact to help you navigate business and government workings.
European Meeting Cultures
British Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocols
In many ways, American and British meetings are similar. However, Americans are not as reserved as British people and may seem more forward or aggressive.
A light but firm handshake, a polite greeting and a smile will set a positive intention for the meeting. The British are more reserved and a handshake should be the only physical contact. Shake hands only with the person conducting the meeting. It is not necessary to shake hands with everyone in the room.
Be prepared to introduce yourself at a meeting with many attendees. A simple introduction offering your name, job title, and company you represent if you are from another company. This exercise will be arranged by the Chairperson, the person who called the meeting.
Before the meeting, you may receive an agenda. This is to help guide the meeting, though it is loosely followed. The meeting may get off to a later start than otherwise suggested. Plan an extra five to ten minutes of wait time just in case.
Meetings in Britain are frequent and rarely finished with plans to action. Usually meetings are held, discussed, and adjourned (ended) with plans for another meeting.
French Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocols
The French are a very formal people. When meeting someone for the first time, they should be called Monsieur for Mr. or Madame for Mrs. It is important to introduce yourself using your first and last name or vice versa. You can also introduce yourself by saying your last name first. Ex: “It is a pleasure to meet you, Monsieur/Madame. I am (Last Name), (FirstName) (LastName)”.
While handshakes are common worldwide, the French have a lighter style. They shake hands with a light, delicate touch. This is opposite the stronger, firmer American handshake. Let your business contact guide what style of handshake is acceptable. Keep small talk conversation professional and do not discuss your personal life or ask about your French business counterparts. Questions about family are not proper in France.
Have business cards printed in French on one side and the other in your native language. Write your family name (your last name) in capital letters on your business card. Keep your cards in a professional business card case. France is about being “put together”. Proper business attire, polite behavior, and accessories including your business card case should be tasteful.
At a business lunch or dinner, keep your hands on the table and not in your lap. Business discussion does not begin until after dessert. The host will begin the business discussion.
Meetings can be long and decisions are made at the top. Be patient. It is common for the French to ask a lot of questions and to interrupt. Do not take offence. Interruption shows their interest and is a positive sign.
Spanish Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocols
When meeting someone for the first time, it is best to offer a handshake. If you have known your Spanish counterpart for some time, they may offer a kiss on each cheek. Be aware, the kiss is to the air while touching cheeks.
Personal relationships are important in Spain and are the first step toward a successful meeting. You may be asked a lot of questions both personal and professional. Getting to know you on a personal level, helps Spaniards decide to place their trust in you, your product, and your business. You can also ask the Spanish questions about their family or children. There is no political correctness in Spain and nearly every topic is a safe topic.
Business meetings are relaxed, open, and agreements are flexible. Meeting presentations can be long. Be prepared. Get things in writing so decisions can become actions.
Be on time to meetings. Be humble. If you can speak Spanish, speak Spanish at the meeting. If your Spanish is limited, begin speaking the little Spanish you do know. This will go a long way in building a good business relationship.
Asian Meeting Cultures
Japanese Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocols
It is often said, you only have a moment to make a good first impression. This is especially true in the Japanese business culture. First meetings are the most important. Similar to the French meeting culture, Japanese business etiquette is formal.
Be polite, but avoid familiar gestures as if you have known the person for a long time. Do not shake hands. Do not pat anyone on the back or shoulder. Do not ask questions about their personal or private life.
Business cards are one of the most important items to have when doing business in Japan. They should be printed in Japanese on one side and the other side in English. If your native language is not English, for a business trip in Japan, it is appropriate to have it printed in English and Japanese only. It is suggested to carry at least 100 cards for a 1 week business trip to Japan.
Do not toss your business card. Present your card holding it with both hands and the Japanese language side facing up to the most senior executive bowing slightly. Accept a Japanese business card in the same manner, with both hands, and say “thank you”.
Do not forget to pick up a business card. To avoid offending anyone, it is best to immediately place the card in your carrying case.
Arrive 10 to 15 minutes early for a meeting. It is polite to call and confirm you are on your way at least one hour in advance. The Japanese agenda is followed much more closely than other countries. Their tight schedules don’t allow for lingering.
Do not seat yourself. Wait to be seated. There is a process for which person sits on which side of the table.
Once seated, take a lot of notes. This not only shows interest, but also helps with questions later or if one party forgets what they promised in the meeting. Do smile, be willing to learn, and ask a lot of questions about your customer’s company.
Chinese Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocols
When scheduling a meeting in China, be aware of their holidays. Try not to schedule a meeting during the Chinese New Year. This usually falls at the beginning of the year, January or February. Another holiday time to avoid is Golden Week in October. If plans are already made, be aware many businesses will be closed. If unavoidable, bring a gift. It is a sign of respect and will be appreciated.
Unlike the Japanese culture, in the Chinese culture a proper handshake sets the tone for a positive meeting. Your handshake should be gentle, but firm. Eye contact made, but held briefly. This is the first step toward establishing trust. The personal connection is extremely important.
Be on time. Once the meeting begins, the focus is on building trust. The Chinese take time to make sure the decision their making is the right one. Like the Japanese, business cards are important. Have special business cards printed. One side of the business card should be printed in Chinese and the other side, English. Present your business card with both hands with the Chinese language side facing up.
In China it is possible you will meet with middle managers who will report to the higher level executives. By treating everyone with respect, no matter their status, you are more likely to make a successful business deal. Focus on discussion. Be patient. Once the decision is made, it will be reported back to you.
The initial meeting is to get to know you, build trust, develop relationships, and establish yourself. A major decision will not happen at the first meeting. Be aware of lucky (8) and unlucky (4) numbers and colors. “Yes” may not mean the Chinese are in agreement and want to move forward. It may just mean they acknowledge what you’re saying. It is best to adopt the Chinese culture of not trusting someone until they’ve proven themselves. If possible, hire a reputable translator to help in negotiations.
Russian Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocols
Business meetings in Russia are formal. Punctuality is expected from the visitor though you may be kept waiting as a show of power. It is expected to confirm your attendance at the meeting both with the secretary and the person you’re meeting. It is a good idea to ask who will be at the meeting, so you can have a meeting of equals. There is little to no small talk. Similar to Latin American countries and Spain, it is proper to use professional or academic titles when addressing someone.
Status, relationships, and network are very important considerations when meeting professionals in Russia. Trust and loyalty is to a person, not a company or organization.
A meeting of equals will begin on time, but rather than postponing will continue until everything has been discussed. Expect meetings to take longer than planned. Agendas are rare. Whoever is the most senior person sets the structure of the meeting by stating the topic and length of discussion. Individuals may contribute, but decisions or disagreements are conducted in private or not at all.
Decisions are made at the highest senior level. The boss makes the decisions alone and may or not may take into consideration recommendations or advice. Though meetings and decision-making take a long time, action is important once a decision has been made.
Indian Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocols
Present business cards when being introduced. They do not need to be double-sided as in other cultures. English is an appropriate language. Like many cultures, Indians want to get to know you and consider it rude to begin a meeting immediately. However, they value personal space. Stand an arm’s length from a person. Safe topics for conversation include questions about family, interests, or hobbies. Don’t refuse an offer of refreshment such as coffee, tea, or a soft drink. Be aware your glass or cup will be refilled as soon as it’s empty. If you don’t want another drink, leave a little bit in your cup.
When scheduling a meeting, know decisions are made at the top. Try to meet with the highest-level person available. Be prepared to reschedule as Indian counterparts may not show up for a scheduled meeting. Plan on several visits before an agreement is made.
Be polite and patient, business is slow and difficult in India. If an Indian counterpart says something “can’t be done”, smile and restate your request.
Gestures are common in Indian culture, but can easily be misinterpreted. The Western greeting of waving a hand side-to-side for “hello” is understood in India as “no” or “go away”. The Western “good-bye” hand and arm waved up and down is understood in India as “come here”. These two gestures are considered rude in Indian culture.
Use your right hand only to touch someone or pick something up. The left hand is considered unclean. Avoid pointing with fingers. Point with your whole hand or thumb.
Feet are considered unclean. It is best not to cross your legs when sitting in a business meeting.
When an Indian moves their head in a figure 8—similar to a Western “no”, this means “yes”.
African Meeting Cultures
African Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocol
A handshake in greeting is common across Africa. In some countries, such as Morocco, men hold their handshakes for a long time. In Kenya and South Africa, handshakes are more succinct as in European cultures.
Morocco is the largest city in Africa and is the hub of business and finance. Greatly influenced by the French, their business language is French, not English. Moroccans value personal relationships and who you know is more important than what you know. Personal relationships go hand-in-hand with hospitality. You’ll likely be served mint tea at your business meeting. Courtesy and formality are pillars of the business culture.
Avoid scheduling meetings on Friday at 11am and 3pm. These are prayer times. Ramadan is another time to avoid as Muslims fast—they do not eat or drink during the day.
Be on time, but you may have to wait. Be aware your meeting may be interrupted. Moroccans have an “open door” policy. Anyone can come in at any time to ask questions or gain approval on a project or document. If a separate discussion begins, you can join in, but allow your host to return to the original topic of discussion.
Similar to Asian and Russian cultures, senior executives make the decisions. However, unlike Russian cultures but similar to Asia, they make their decisions based on recommendations from the group. Haggling is part of the culture, even in business. Decisions take time. Don’t push.
Business cards are not necessary as they are in other cultures. But, if you want to give your card have one side printed in French or Arabic and the other in your native language. Present the card with the French or Arabic language side up.
South Africa Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocol
Dress appropriately. Only African women wear a sari. In the cities, many South Africans have adopted western dress.
Meetings may be held in a good restaurant for lunch or dinner. A handshake is a common greeting. Use titles and last names when addressing people. Business cards are accepted and exchanged, but there is no special way to give or receive a business card.
When scheduling, appointments can be made as early as 9a.m. Business dealings are relaxed and casual. Be patient. Don’t rush. South Africans want everyone to feel they got a good deal; a “win-win” situation.
United Arab Emirates Meeting Culture: Planning and Protocol
Dress modestly. Most of the body should be covered. Do not try to wear native clothing. They may find it offensive. Men should wear a jacket and tie, a long-sleeved button up shirt buttoned to the collar. Avoid jewelry around the neck. Women should wear clothes with high necklines, sleeves to the elbow or wrist, and ankle-length or mid-calf skirts. Avoid pants or pantsuits. Be aware shoes are often removed before entering a building. Do as your host does.
Allow your host or counterpart to make the first move and begin the greeting. Men shake hands with men. A more traditional greeting is for men to hold each other’s right hand, placing the left hand on the other’s right shoulder and exchanging kisses on each cheek. If a businesswoman is present, she should wait for the man to offer his hand in greeting.
When you sit, do not cross your legs. To show the bottom of your shoe or foot is offensive.
The safest topic is sports. Do not discuss women, even if it relates to a family member. Also, avoid the topic of Israel. When scheduling a meeting, try to avoid Friday. This is the day of rest in Muslim countries. Prior to the meeting, it is a good idea to get the names of the attendees (in English) and how they are addressed.
Communication is slow and often interrupted. “Yes” is not a confirmation, it is closer in meaning to “possibly”. Avoid asking a lot of questions. You will be considered less important. You do not need to fill the silence. The decision maker is often silent and more interested in observing.
Dress appropriately. In general, men should dress in dark suits and be well-groomed. Hair trimmed. Women should dress conservatively. A good rule of thumb is a dark pant suit or skirt with a white blouse. In Muslim countries, sleeves should be to the wrist and skirts past the knees.
Shake hands and make eye contact.
In most cultures, it is proper to make small talk. Ask getting to know you questions.
Always have business cards. In most cases, print one side in English and the other in the language of the country visiting.
Hire a translator, if needed.
Be aware it may take several meetings before decisions are made or agreements reached.