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Business Etiquette Blunders from around the World — Expats Share Their Stories

When pursuing a career abroad, there are many potential pitfalls for expats. From communication blunders to time management and business lunches, different cultures handle all aspects of business life in many different ways. Even with a lot of preparation, misunderstandings are not uncommon.

We asked expats about the biggest misunderstandings they experienced in the business world and what was most difficult to adjust to for them. Here, they share their experiences with us.

The Obstacle Course of Communication

For people living and working abroad, something as simple as greeting a new colleague or business partner can become a challenge. In Thailand, the wai, a bow with hands clasped, is the common form of greeting. Here, the position of the hands is adjusted to reflect the position of the person you’re greeting. When doing business in Japan, it is best to do a bow before shaking hands. In Latin American countries, one the other hand, a hug and even a kiss on the cheek is common, once you have established a relationship with your business partners.

Cathy, an expat from the USA, has experienced this after her move to Costa Rica: “As the American, I always go for the hand to shake and about half the time, this is correct. Other times, people lean in for the cheek kiss or extend one arm for the half hug, where I go to find their hand for a shake,” she says. “It ends up being this awkward hug/kiss/shake showdown where all of us get confused and doubt our original actions, so we have to decide what’s appropriate.”

Luckily, these greeting showdowns have never caused any problems for her, and her colleagues are ready to navigate these situations together with her. “As the ‘new one’, I’m normally able to laugh it off and the team is gentle with me, so it’s funny. They have pretty much gotten used to it.”

When these misunderstandings go beyond simple greetings, however, they can be the source of conflict. When Gianfranco took his Italian temperament to work in the Netherlands, he found that he unintentionally ruffled some feathers. “I was inclined to not leave any stone unturned and any argument unexplored when discussing an issue. I had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way before understanding that it's not appreciated around here.” His colleagues in Amsterdam initially misunderstood his approach to communication. “I once approached a colleague after a meeting because I thought we did not understand each other clearly enough. Unfortunately, my best intentions were so sorely misunderstood that he filed a formal complaint with the management that I was talking aggressively to him.“

Despite Gianfranco’s initial negative experience, it seems like most expats adjust to the business etiquette in the Netherlands quite well. The country comes in 11th out of 53 countries for the ease of understanding the local business etiquette in the Expat Insider 2018 survey. More than half the expats who have lived in the country for a maximum of two years (53%) find this easy, compared to 46% globally. Instead of giving up, Gianfranco became more conscious of non-verbal cues from his colleagues: “If I detect a certain body language, I immediately let the current point fall, or I postpone the discussion to a later moment.” At the same time, he learned how to leverage his physical traits and be more conscious of his voice or posture. The need to adjust to a different style of communicating and paying more attention to his own approach has even turned Gianfranco into a better public speaker and taught him some essential soft skills. “The contact with another culture and expression helped foster my Zen attitudes, like patience and acceptance — something that could be advised to many other people, at every latitude.”

Upon his move from Canada to Qatar, Salman also experienced how non-verbal cues can land you in hot water. “In one of my business meetings with a supplier, I was sitting across from him on the sofa and the sole of my shoes was unintentionally pointing towards him.” He learned later that this is considered to be rude in the GCC culture and had to apologize for his ignorance. Communicating with female co-workers was another challenge. When greeting his colleagues in his Executive MBA class, one female GCC member politely declined to shake his hand. “It was against her religious and cultural customs which I respect and understand. She then told me that it is always best to greet GCC women without any body contact.” According to the Expat Insider 2018 survey, Qatar is in fact one of the countries where it is hardest to get used to the local business etiquette. The country lands in the bottom 10 of the ranking, with more than three in ten expats (31%) saying that they find it hard to understand the etiquette (vs. 24% globally).

Businesspeople Who Lunch

Discussing business topics or holding interviews during lunch has become a common practice. The setting is more informal than in the conference room or at the office, and, of course, there’s the added bonus of enjoying some delicious food. Despite the casual environment, however, there are many faux pas that can happen during a business lunch.

During an interview lunch in the USA, one newly returned expat ordered himself a beer — common practice in the UK. “When the others interviewing me ordered iced teas, I suddenly realized I was back in the US where drinking alcohol at lunch was not the done thing.” Luckily, the interviewers were impressed by his confidence and boldness, and he got the job in the end. This ease of doing business is also reflected in the Expat Insider 2018 ranking for business etiquette: the US ranks 7th out of 53 for this factor.

For another expat from the US, business lunch did not go over quite as smoothly. He was invited to the interior of Paraguay by the female owner of a farm. Not thinking much of it, he decided to bring his newly arrived Italian wife along, forgetting that in Paraguay, women (though owners and decision makers) are not allowed at the table. “My wife was sitting at a large table being the only woman, while the men were served by the owner.” Although his faux pas created a quite uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, he was forgiven, and business went on as usual.

When to Stay and When to Go

Time management is another area that leaves a lot of space for misunderstandings. In some countries, employees are expected to be extremely punctual, while you have some more flexibility with your working hours and lunch breaks in others. What seems like a small issue takes a lot of adjustment for some expats and can be the source of some major conflict at work.

After her move from Italy to the UK, Idina struggled with the time flexibility during coffee/tea and lunch breaks, or rather the lack thereof. “Coming from a Mediterranean country, I had a tendency to stretch my breaks, while in the UK, being on time is considered essential for an excellent performance.”

The general acceptance of smoking breaks is one of the things that threw off an expat from the US after a move to Germany, along with the tendency of many Germans to work later in the day than Americans. “Sometimes, I feel ‘wrong’ when I leave in the afternoon while everyone else is still in the office, even though we all end up working the same number of hours.”

While business etiquette in the UK seems relatively easy to get used to — the country ranks 9th in the Expat Insider 2018 survey — expats struggle more in Germany. Coming in 40th out of 53 countries for this factor, close to three in ten expats living there for less than two years (29%) find this hard.

Dress to Impress

Just like your words and body language, the way you dress in a business setting carries meaning. The formal attire that is appropriate in one country or field of work may not be expected after your move abroad.

In the UK, Terry worked as the director of a Swedish company’s subsidiary. Although the company culture was relatively informal — smart slacks, sports jackets, and neat shirts were the norm, rather than suits — keeping up this dress code while working in the agricultural sector in South Africa caused some issues. “For the first few months of being in South Africa, I found it very difficult to pitch-up at a facility and get to meet the farm manager or senior grower. It took a while to discover that, when they saw me arriving, they assumed I was the bank manager and promptly disappeared.”

Finally, one of his friends suggested a more casual dress code, and as soon as Terry had changed into chinos and open-neck, short-sleeved shirts, all went well. His new business contacts were much more relaxed and open to discussing the systems Terry’s company was offering.

Beyond the Conference Room

Aside from the usual business etiquette rules, local customs and traditions have their way of seeping into expats’ work life. If you’re working in the Middle East, for instance, you might notice that office hours are limited during the month of Ramadan. And expats in India might just be lucky enough to be part of Diwali celebrations at the office.

Although Singapore is the easiest country to work in in terms of business etiquette according to the latest Expat Insider survey — 75% find it easy to get used to it compared to 46% globally — misunderstandings are not uncommon.

Arriving shortly before the Chinese New Year, one expat from the US was excited to experience this popular holiday. The secretary at their workplace handed out festive oranges to all employees for the occasion. However, it was only after eating the fruit, that they realized that all of the other employees had displayed the oranges on their desks in pairs. “I discreetly asked if I was supposed to eat them and found out that they should be left out as an auspicious sign of prosperity. I had only one left and had to figure out if I should eat it and get rid of the evidence or try to buy a second and pretend I hadn't eaten the symbol of a prosperous new year!”

Gift giving in general can be another cause for misunderstanding. Especially in a business setting, gifts carry meaning, from the color of the wrapping paper to the actual item being gifted.

Tony, a British-Australian expat got a job with the government in Hong Kong in 1972. To his delight, he was invited to a colleague’s wedding just a few months later. “So, what did I do? Well, I went out and bought them a toaster. I thought it was the right thing to do!” He soon realized that all the other guests gave little red envelopes full of money instead, as is customary in China and Hong Kong. Such a hóngbao should contain enough money to cover the costs of the guest at the wedding and to appropriately represent the relationship to the recipient. It might be partly due to these rigid societal rules that Hong Kong achieves mediocre results for business etiquette, ranking 28th in the Expat Insider 2018 survey, while China even comes in 51st, only ahead of Saudi Arabia and Japan.

Small Talk and Privacy

Enquiring about the personal life of your colleagues or business partners can be tricky. After all, it’s not always clear when to keep your private and work life separate and how open you can actually be.

After his move from Canada to Qatar, Salman experienced various situations in which navigating that line between business and personal life was challenging. “In some countries, where relationships are much more valuable then monetary transactions, they expect you to build personal relationships before conducting business. Whereas in other countries, you have to talk business right away as time is of value for them.” It gets complicated when business partners expect personal chit chat before a meeting but discussing the family or spouse is completely off limits. “In Qatar, one can only share their personal life in a business environment after they have established close ties with each other. Even then, they cannot always discuss their more intimate personal lives involving certain health matters or inquiring about spouse and daughters.”

However, Salman had prepared well ahead of his move, and many of these rules of business etiquette are not unique to Qatar alone. “It was not surprising at all,” he says, “as this is the case in many South Asian and Middle Eastern countries.”



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