Business Etiquette Blunders from Around the World – Expats Share Their Story


When pursuing a career abroad, there are many potential pitfalls. 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 and can, in the worst case, even harm your career.

As the latest Expat Insider survey, one of the world’s most extensive surveys about living and working abroad, indicates, some business cultures are easier to get used to than others.

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. When doing business in Japan, it is best to do a bow before shaking hands.

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.”

Business People 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 there’s the added bonus of enjoying some delicious food. Despite the casual environment, however, there are many faux pas that can happen.

During an interview lunch in the USA, one newly returned expat ordered himself a beer, which is 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.

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 — 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 terms of business etiquette according to the latest Expat Insider survey — 75% find it easy to get used to them compared to 46% globally — misunderstandings are not uncommon.

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