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back to index backEUROtalk April,  2005

Tips Regarding Cultural Differences

From pungent cheese to strong coffee, decisions on whether to bring a gift, raised voices or prolonged periods of silence in the boardroom, and the determination of what to wear … global business travel can sometimes present unique challenges. When your host is late, is that an affront to the guest, or simply traditional timing? There are many issues for consideration in order to better understand the location being visited regarding dress, habits and customs, or even physical posture.

Rules of the Road

Travel declined by 14% between 1998 and 2003, according to a survey conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America, National Business Travel Association and the Institute of Business Travel Management. (1) The survey shows, however, that travel volume grew by more than 4% during 2004, and is expected to continue to grow over the next few years. The majority of travelers are men, with an average age of 47; this group comprises only 17% of business travelers, yet they take nearly two thirds of all business trips. (1) This large group of our business population is traveling more and can benefit from learning the rules of the road.”

The following tips have been assembled for an at-a-glance reference tool.

The Handshake

In the U.S., there is no better way of introducing oneself or in greeting one another in a business setting than by the handshake. But is this true globally? Perhaps not, based on the culture and gender of meeting participants. While it is always appropriate for men to extend hands to one another, many cultures shift the rules when the handshake involves a woman. Below are tips for greetings in various parts of the world (2) :

In Germany and the U.S., firm handshakes are standard (German handshakes being very brief, and the U.S. lasting an average of three to four seconds)

France, Guatemala and Japan use less rigid handshakes

In Singapore , associates use a longer handshake (ten or more seconds)

In New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, or Taiwan, the first to offer a hand should be the woman

In South Korea, cup the left hand under the right forearm during the handshake

In place of a handshake in China, Hong Kong or Japan, a traditional bow may be used

In India, a namaste is a traditional greeting (placing hands in a praying position, palms together with fingers beneath the chin, bow and say namaste”)

Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama offer the unique greeting for women of patting the right forearm or shoulder

In countries with a heavy Hindu or Muslim population, women should wait for a man to offer his hand to determine if a Western handshake will be used

To Give or Not to Give?

The art of appropriate gift* giving can be complex. In some countries, a gift may be expected, and in others it may be considered a breach of conduct. Yet the rules are simple to follow with a quick list of traditional guidelines (3) :

Countries in which a gift may be expected at first meetings:

Europe —Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Ukraine
Latin America —Bolivia, Columbia, Costa Rica
Pacific Rim —China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand

Countries in which a gift might be expected on a subsequent visit:

Europe —Portugal, Spain
Latin America —Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Venezuela
Pacific Rim —Malaysia, Singapore
Scandinavia —Finland, Norway

* The appropriate type of gift also varies by region/country and should be researched prior to purchase.

Countries in which gifts are less frequently exchanged:

Europe —England, France, Hungary, Italy
Latin America —Uruguay
Scandinavia —Denmark
Middle East —Pakistan, Saudi Arabia
United States

Dress for Success

It is important to help ensure suitable dress for the region in which you are visiting. For both the comfort of the host and your reassurance in the meeting, the tips below may help you to prepare for any upcoming engagements. (4)


Hong Kong: When dressing for a business meeting, select a red tie; the color whiteis synonymous with death

Canada: Men should wear a dark, conservative business suit, especially in cities; the major cities can be very sophisticated; women should wear a conservative business suit or dress

United Kingdom: Business attire rules are somewhat relaxed in England, but conservative dress is still very important for both men and women; dark suits, usually black, blue or gray, are quite acceptable; businesswomen are not as limited to colors and styles as men, though it is still important to maintain a conservative image

Mexico: Men should wear a conservative dark suit and tie; include suits that have classic lines and tailoring in gray or navy, with white or light blue shirts; women should wear a dress or skirt and blouse

France: The French are very conscientious of their appearance, often dress conservatively and invest in well-tailored clothing; patterned fabrics and dark colors are most acceptable; women should avoid glitzy or overpowering objects, such as flashy jewelry

Russia: Businessmen in Russia usually wear suits that are dark and well-tailored, along with good dress shoes; the wardrobe demonstrates the individual's image as a professional; do not stand with your hands in your pocket, as this is considered rude; women dress rather conservatively, and skirts should be worn rather than pants

India: Men are generally expected to wear a suit and tie for business, although the jacket may be removed in the summer; women should wear conservative dresses or pantsuits

South Africa: South Africans of urban cultures generally wear western dress; dress well in public; it will be expected by your host

China: Conservative suits for men with subtle colors are the norm; women should avoid high heels and short-sleeved blouses

Punctuality and Patience

How important is arriving on time? Depending upon the country and culture, it might be more significant for you, as the visitor, to be on time than your host. Can a late host be a cultural standard, or just a test of your patience? What about negotiations? Are they quickly wrapped, or a drawn-out process? The guidelines below will provide some insight to this issue (5) :

Hong Kong: Punctuality is expected in Hong Kong; appointments are appreciated, but not necessary; silence is held in high regard; allow your host to contemplate and make business decisions without interruption

Canada: Be punctual for meetings and appointments, as promptness is valued; in French provinces, timing is more relaxed; however, you will be expected to arrive at the appointed time, even if the French Canadians attending the meeting are late

United Kingdom: Always be punctual in England; arriving a few minutes early is acceptable; decision-making is slower than in the U.S., therefore, it is unwise to rush the English into making a decision

Mexico: Punctuality is not rigid due to an emphasis on personal obligations; the best time for appointments is between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

France: Punctuality is treated very casually in France

Russia: As a foreigner, you are expected to be on time to all business appointments; the Russian counterpart may be late, as this may be a test of patience; patience is an extremely important virtue among Russians, but punctuality is not; you should realize that final offers” are not actually the end of the negotiations, and often the outcome will be more beneficial if you can hold out

India: Punctuality is considered important in the region; the word no” has harsh implications; evasive refusals are more common and are considered more polite; never directly refuse an invitation

South Africa: Promptness is important for the guest; do not rush decisions; South Africans are very casual in their business dealings

China: Always arrive on time or early if you are the guest; being on time is critical in China; be sure to bring several copies of all written documents to your meetings; the decision making process is slow

More Unique Facts

Not all attention-grabbing facts are included in the traditional categories! More unique facts include:


Hong Kong

It is common to show surprise or dismay by sucking air in quickly and loudly through thelips and teeth; if shown this gesture, the host is likely displeased

At the close of a trip, have a dinner for your host as a display of respect

Use only black and white materials for presentations, as other colors tend to signify hidden meanings


Do not eat while walking in public

Do not be boastful or overstate your product or service capabilities; you could implicate your company in a legal situation

United Kingdom

To signal that something is to be kept confidential or secret, tap your nose

A business lunch will often be conducted in a pub and will consist of a light meal and perhaps a pint of ale

English is the official language, but it should be noted that Queen's English and American English are very different


Standing with hands on hips suggests aggressiveness; keeping hands in pockets is impolite

Mexicans may not make eye contact; this is a sign of respect and should not be taken as an affront

Secretaries do appreciate gifts

Titles are important and should be included on business cards


Most individuals in business speak English, but prefer if the visitor can speak French

The French frequently interrupt each other, with the argument often considered a form of entertainment

Eye contact is often frequent and intense, which can be intimidating to North Americans


Do not show the soles of your shoes, as this is considered impolite; they are considered dirty, and should never come in contact with any type of seat

Have plenty of business cards with double sides of information; one side in English and the other in Russian

Be alert and open to taking a drink or having a toast, as refusing to do so is a serious breach of etiquette


Beckoning someone with the palm up and wagging one finger can be construed as an insult

Standing with your hands on your hips will be interpreted as an angry, aggressive posture

Never point your feet at a person; feet are considered unclean; if your shoes or feet touch another person, be sure to apologize

Do not thank your hosts at the end of a meal; thank you” is considered a form of payment and can be insulting


Do not use large hand movements; your movements may be distracting to your host

Do not start to eat or drink prior to the host, and do not eat all of your meal (they may assume you did not receive enough food and are still hungry)

Introductions are formal; use titles

Present and receive business cards with both hands

The most important member of your company or group should lead important meetings; Chinese value rank and status

While there are thousands of tips available for business travelers, a strong Intercultural Training Program will benefit your most frequent globetrotters (traveling for both short- and long-term assignments) with a comprehensive understanding of the cultural nuances associated with their travel.

For more information about Prudential Relocation's Cultural Training Programs, please contact Ruth Fernandes, Director GlobalAutoUniversity - via email at


1 Source:, Business Travelers Habits Tracked in New Survey
2 Source:, International Success Tips by Kimberly Roberts
3 Source:, International Gift Giving for Business
4 Source:
5 Source:
6 Source:

Source: Prudential Relocation "Moving Forward" newsletter - GAI

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