Business culture around the world

If you’re travelling for work, you’ll have experienced the unexpected nuances of international business culture.

Far from simply having collectivist and individualist societies, each country’s business culture has grown from its unique trade and social histories. In recent years, growing globalisation has been changing these cultures yet again.

So, how does culture in international business differ around the world, today?

Cultures differ in terms of how they value relationships, communicate, conduct meetings, deal with change and more.

An example given by Harvard Business Review talks about implementing new software. Cultures with flat hierarchies will value change; In comparison, authority-focused organisations meet change with scepticism.

But generalisations don’t get us far when discussing countries’ rich and exciting world business cultures.

Instead, let’s dive into the international business customs of 17 countries:

Australia

Work-based entertaining

Australians don’t need relationships to do business, so don’t extend entertaining invites until later in the relationship. If they do, you’re likely to go for dinner or to the pub, where you should wait for your Australian host to bring up work talk.

Communication

Australians like to create a relaxed atmosphere where everything appears under control. They use light humour and direct yet casual statements to make business light while still taking your words seriously. 

Meeting etiquette

Decisions tend to be made quickly in Australia as they will often go with the first offer. Hierarchies aren’t as binding in Australia, and more people can make decisions, yet deals will still need to be signed off by a manager.

Top tip

A round of drinks is called a “Shout” in Australia. If your host invites you for drinks, they will expect everyone to take turns getting a shout for the group.

Belgium

Work-based entertaining

Belgians keep their work and personal life separate. Your host might invite you for a working lunch, but dinners are uncommon.

Communication

Belgians like to take time to discuss the reason and logic behind ideas. Don’t rush your conversations and allow everyone time to understand the issue at hand.

Meeting etiquette

Belgians tend to have a flat hierarchical structure and use meetings to discuss ideas through a structured agenda. Stick to their agenda but be open to plenty of small talk.

Top tip

Belgium has a long and successful export trade history so they are usually more relaxed around other people’s customs or if you make a mistake.

business people shaking hands

Brazil

Work-based entertaining

Brazilians tend to leave the office for lunch, so you’ll be invited to join if your meeting is around lunch. These lunches are mainly social so avoid bringing up work until your Brazilian contact does.

Communication

Brazilians are passionate and friendly. They value small talk about football, family, and culture. They are also likely to sit close to you and interrupt you, which may appear over-familiar to those who aren’t used to it. Just don’t mention Argentina, a country Brazilians typically see as a rival. 

Meeting etiquette

Brazilian meetings can start 15 minutes late, but arriving on time yourself is best. Begin with small talk and when you move on to business, see interruptions as a sign of interest.

Top tip

Expect to receive and give lots of handshakes, hugs, and back slaps. But the OK sign or hitting their palm with the back of their other hand means they feel negative or are not interested.

China

Work-based entertaining

The Chinese value introductions and are typically wary of strangers. Therefore business meals are a popular way to build relationships. During your meal, your host will serve you more food every time you finish your plate, so always leave a bite when you are full. 

Communication

China values Guanxi, which means solidarity, loyalty, modesty and courtesy, similar to the Korean ‘Kibun’. Be very polite and read up on Chinese social practices as they are taken seriously in China. The Chinese rarely say no and instead opt for vague statements like “yes, but it may be difficult” or “Yes, but we will have to check with others.”

Meeting etiquette

Chinese business meetings start on time but have an unpredictable duration. Having a meeting plan is good, but the Chinese won’t feel the need to stick to it.

Top tip

Business cards are essential in China. Print your card in Chinese and English and give it to your new contact with both hands the Chinese side facing them. Receive their card with both hands and treat it was care, reading it carefully before putting it in a safe place.

Finland

Work-based entertaining

Finns sometimes work over lunch to fit with their personal schedule. After-work entertaining is also uncommon but still occurs in some organisations.

Communication

Fins are straightforward and don’t require personal relationships to work with others. Be polite, avoid hugging, and never interrupt someone in conversation.

Meeting etiquette

Finnish meetings are punctual and to the point. Meetings aren’t strict, but the Finnish prefer to stick to a structure and usually say what they mean.

Top tip

Finland boasts the top city in the world for work-life balance; Helsinki. Finns partly achieve this by being great timekeepers, so always be punctual to avoid disrupting their well-balanced schedules.

diverse group of colleagues talking to each other

France

Work-based entertaining

In France, lunch can take up to 2 hours, so be prepared for a long meeting if you meet near 1 pm.

Communication

The French are generally direct and probing in their communication style. However, they will take longer to make a decision and will need time to consider an offer after the meeting. 

Meeting etiquette

Be punctual and dress in well-fitting clothes for French meetings. French meetings don’t always stick to an agenda, and it’s common for individuals to interrupt each other with questions as a sign of interest.

Top tip

Avoid giving presents at your first meeting; they can come over too pushy. And if you’re going for dinner, a bottle of wine as a gift will suggest you don’t trust the host’s taste.

Germany

Work-based entertaining

Germans don’t tend to focus on building relationships and will only begin to conduct lunch meetings further into the working relationship. As an informal gesture, you may be invited for drinks after a meeting, but it is not overly common.

Communication

Germans are very direct, and while friendly in everyday life, they are formal in business meetings and avoid general humour.

Meeting etiquette

Arrive 15 minutes early to meetings. Expect the meeting to be very formal with no jokes and a strict agenda and hierarchy. German businesses tend to make decisions top-down and juniors will never contradict senior management.

Top tip

If you don’t have anything of value to say, don’t say anything. Germans would rather embrace silence than fill it with informal small talk during business proceedings.

India

Work-based entertaining

Relationships are essential for business in India, so your contact will invite you for an evening meal or business lunch. People from India make decisions as much on trust as they do on business data, so always attend entertaining offers.

Communication

Indians are indirect and will be non-committal rather than saying no when talking business. Relationships are critical, so build a rapport by openly discussing family and hobbies during small talk.

Meeting etiquette

Meetings in India are flexible and subject to valid interruptions. Agreements are usually flexible in India, so even if you make a final decision, your Indian partners will likely make adjustments after the meeting.

Top tip

English is the language of business in India, but don’t forget India has 22 official and 121 unofficial languages. Never assume where someone is from in India or their cultural norms.

People sitting at laptops with coffee and paperwork

Italy

Work-based entertaining

Italians are very passionate about relationships. Working lunch meetings are common. Evening meetings are about the relationship and work talk is usually limited.

Communication

Italians are likely to ask about your personal life and be very open to building a relationship with you. So leverage your relationship to persuade Italians to your way of thinking. 

Meeting etiquette

Begin meetings with social talk and expect the meeting to be very animated with lots of tangents and unrelated but valuable discussion.

Top tip

Italians are all about quality. Dress cheaply or give an under-valued gift, and you’ll do more damage than good.

Japan

Work-based entertaining

In Japan, entertaining is an integral part of business. You’ll likely go for Sake or Karaoke whether the deal was a good one or not.

Communication

Japanese tend to be less direct and use coded speech to avoid saying no. Try to read between the lines of your contact’s words and mirror their level of (or lack of) confrontation.

Meeting etiquette

The Japanese are very punctual and tend to sit quietly in meetings. Create opportunities for everyone to be involved, or those not immediately called on won’t interact.

Top tip

In Japan, people don’t like to owe favours, so they will show thanks shortly after you do something for them. To Westerners, it may seem like the Japanese are going above and beyond, but in reality, they are just levelling the playing field. 

Morocco

Work-based entertaining

Your contact in Morocco will likely invite you to dinner at a restaurant or their home. Take your shoes off in their home and avoid eating with your left hand as this is unclean in Muslim cultures.

Communication

Moroccans value positive connections and avoid confrontation. Indulge in small talk about sports and family. If you need to discuss something negative, do so with as new people as possible in the room and try to be indirect.

Meeting etiquette

Meetings in Morocco are flexible and are open to overrunning. Morccnas likes to negotiate and feel they had the last word, so start high in decisions and allow your contact to have the final word.

Top tip

Morocco is a Muslim country so try to avoid meetings during Ramadan or be very accommodating if you meet during this period.

The Netherlands

Work-based entertaining

The Dutch are friendly but don’t need relationships to work together. Work lunches and dinners are usually more of a convenience rather than a bonding activity so focus on work rather than overzealous personal talk.

Communication

Focus on straightforward work talk and be open and collaborative in your discussion with everyone in the room, regardless of their position.

Meeting etiquette

Arrive on time or slightly early for meetings in the Netherlands. Organisations are very flat in The Netherlands so expect staff in every position to express their opinions in meetings. 

Top tip

The Dutch are strategic and focus on the long-term. Construct your arguments around long-term goals, and you’ll receive a warmer reception.

South Korea

Work-based entertaining

Relationship-building is vital to Koreans, so it’s common to go out to eat together at lunch or dinner. The host usually pays, and splitting the bill is almost unheard of.

Communication

Kibun or personal dignity is vital in South Korea and, if lost, is near impossible to regain. Therefore S.Koreans tend to avoid confrontation, and their decisions follow a strict decision-making process.

Meeting etiquette

Book meetings well in advance to fit in with Koreans’ busy schedules and expect to reschedule once. In the meeting, follow a strict agenda and do your best to accommodate the organisation’s decision-making process, even if it is lengthy.

Top tip

Giving gifts is a great sign of respect in Korea, but you should expect your contact to refuse your gift multiple times and to open it later in private.

a white man and a black man having a discussion

Spain

Work-based entertaining

The Spanish use meal times to bond rather than talk business. Expect a lunch invite to start after 2pm and a dinner invite to start around 9:30pm at which you’ll get to know each other and celebrate your existing partnership.

Communication

The Spanish value relationships over technical skills–while the latter is still important, focus on meaningful small talk and relationship bonding.

Meeting etiquette

While you should do your best to be on time, you won’t need to heavily apologise for being late in Spain. The Spanish are also lenient on meeting duration. 

Top tip

The Spanish use touch to signal fondness. Expect hugs with backslaps and vigorous handshakes that grab each other’s forearm.

Taiwan

Work-based entertaining

Eating and drinking together are common to build mutual respect when working with Taiwanese businesses. If you drink alcohol, only begin to drink after the host makes a toast.

Communication

Keep your communication quiet and polite in Taiwan. Generally, individuals are very considerate and patient and expect the same from business partners.

Meeting etiquette

The Taiwanese are very non-confrontational. Keep your conversations polite and avoid talking negatively. If you must give negative feedback, do so one-on-one.

Top tip

In Taiwan, professionals rely on Guanxi, networks from school or university that individuals continue to nurture long into their career.

United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Work-based entertaining

Entertaining is a vital part of business in the UAE, so you’ll likely be invited for lunch or dinner. The UAE is an Islamic country, so don’t order or consume pork, shellfish or alcohol in front of your hosts.

Communication

Communication is formal in UAE, and your should greet your contacts from most senior to least. Relationships are valued, so it’s normal to compliment and outright flatter your host. On the flip side, when it comes to disagreements, people from the United Arab Emirates will be vague and evasive to avoid disrespecting a partner by saying no.

Meeting etiquette

Arrive early and dress formally in meetings, covering your arms and legs. Businesses are often family-run so expect the head of the family to complete negotiations and decisions.

Top tip

Weekends are on Friday and Saturday in UAE, so don’t schedule meetings on a Friday, and do expect contact on a Sunday!

Well done for completing your business culture trip around the world! It surprised us how many countries shared certain traits and not others.

One thing is for sure, however: doing your research and investing in translating your sales and work content will always win favour with international clients.

If you’re interested in localisation and translation services, get in touch with us here at LEaF Translations, we’d be happy to help!

Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author

Lucy

Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.