Going Global: The Relationship Between Business and Cultures

Chalk-drawn map of the world with a human hand holding model airplane

Accepting a business card with both hands. Bypassing punctuality. Agreeing to a binding contract by accepting a drink. Across the world, the relationship between business and cultures can be a pretty challenging set of skills to acquire, especially in places that have much different practices than our own. Yet, as the world becomes more globalized, the importance of both studying and performing cultural graces with those you plan to do business with is absolutely necessary… At least if you’re interested in maintaining those customers, clients, or vendors. 

Business relationships can live or die on the observance of particular social mores. While we’ll look into a few of them today, it would pay dividends to do more in-depth research once you land an international network connection. Look at dress codes, expectations regarding time commitments, and even what particular hand gestures, like pointing or waving, mean. One snafu could spell disaster, so being prepared is the ultimate goal. Keeping the relationship between business and cultures in mind can help you do just that.

To get you started, we’ll look at a few business culture expectations in countries listed as America’s top 10 trading partners. The lists are not comprehensive, but they are a good jumping-off point for further study. 

Canada (14.6% of trade, $320.8B in exports)

  • There is little “passive aggression” in Canadian business. Both phone calls and emails should be succinct and to the point.
  • Business hours are similar to America: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday.
  • Handshakes and eye contact are a typical greeting
  • It is not uncommon for business contacts to speak in both French and English. If you are not fluent in French, you may need to request an interpreter. In Quebec, all commercial endeavors must be readily available and translated to French. All employees have a right to speak French as their primary language. 
  • The dress code is conservative and professional. 
  • For an evening event, such as a business dinner, it is acceptable to be between 15-30 minutes late. 
  • It is common to exchange gifts at the conclusion of a business deal.

Mexico (11.9% of trade, $261.7B in exports)

  • In Mexico, calls and emails are expected, but not preferred. Contacts will want to meet face-to-face several times before agreeing to a deal. 
  • Many formal interactions start with small talk about current events, sports, or the weather. Learning a little about the city you’re in, including favorite local sports teams, will go a long way.
  • It is very common for visitors to hire a local contact to assist them with the logistics of travel, communication, and local customs. 
  • While it is expected that your hosts will be late to your meetings, it is never acceptable for a visitor to be anything less than punctual. 
  • Be prepared for long meals. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all common in business meetings, but the afternoon and evening engagements can last for several hours. 
  • Watch body language carefully. With Mexican business transactions, the word “no” is avoided as much as possible, but body language can be a clear indicator of the reality of the situation. 

China (7.7% of trade, $169.8B in exports)

  • “Keeping face” is a point system in China. Smart, polite, and culturally reverant interactions will help you “gain face,” while being rude, discourteous, or even revealing past failures will make you “lose face.” The goal is to try to gain as much face as possible. 
  • Be detail oriented. Have all papers, research, and culture expectations well-prepared. Scheduling a meeting on a holiday, especially those not recognized by Western culture, is a big no-no. 
  • Be careful with gifts, and don’t be afraid to ask well before the actual meeting. In some industries, gift giving is an absolute do not. In others, it is a welcome tradition. 
  • Punctuality is of the utmost importance. 
  • Be aware of when you enter the room. The Chinese follow hierarchy, starting with seniority. Your team should follow the same rules. Following the same idea, always allow your hosts to leave the room first. 
  • Even if you are excited or upset, maintain your composure. Expressing strong emotion in a business setting is bad etiquette. 
  • Team members of a “lower rank” are only expected to chime in when called upon by “higher ranking” cohorts. 

United Kingdom (5.5% of trade, $121B in exports)

  • Hold high standards of punctuality. Expect plenty of notice for scheduled meetings. If you are running late, it is polite to call and check in. 
  • Keep it semi-formal with handshakes. Hugging or cheek-kissing are not popular amongst the UK business crowd.
  • Be prepared to be on a first name basis. It is very uncommon for anyone involved to use official titles. 
  • Traditional business dress is ideal, but business casual is not uncommon. Gauge your own dress code based on that of your hosts. 
  • Ask questions readily, and be ready to do the same. 
  • Maintain a cheerful, friendly attitude. Don’t be too stern or serious during a business meeting. 
  • Tea time lives up to the hype we see in television and movies. You are going to be offered tea several times a day. Once you have created strong relationships with your colleagues or network contacts, you should offer to help prepare it in more informal settings.

Japan (4.9% of trade, $107.4B in exports)

  • Don’t sit down until your host has extended an invitation to do so. 
  • Like the Chinese, the Japanese are very precise in their hierarchical seating arrangements. This applies to meetings, train rides, and meals. If you aren’t sure where to sit, a good rule of thumb is that the higher your rank, the closer you should sit to the host. If you still aren’t sure, wait for others to be seated to see where they are leaving space for you. 
  • Learn business phrases. While many older, traditional greetings and goodbyes have fallen out of style, they still have a place in the boardroom. 
  • Take your coat off before you enter the building. 
  • When you are entering a room with a closed door, knock three times. Knocking twice is reserved for checking whether or not a public bathroom is occupied. 
  • Tea time is important in Japan, as it is in the UK. Wait until your host sips their own tea before you take a drink. Also, be aware that it is often served extremely hot. 
  • When you or your guests are leaving via elevator, it is considered polite for the person not riding on the elevator to maintain a low, respectful bow until the doors close. 

Around the World, the Relationship Between Business and Cultures is a Poignant One

No matter where your work takes you, the people that you interact with are going to be passionate about their business, their industry, and their networking. Taking the time to understand local customs, along with general tactics for being a leader for your own business on a global scale, is worth the time you put into it. Thanks to the lightning-fast abilities of communication, connections are easier than ever to both create and maintain. Don’t allow a cultural oversight to hurt your chances of landing the deal. 

For more help with training, mentoring, and growing as a leader, get in touch with Catalyst Group ECR. We work with business owners and executives to help them realize their potential and experience growth. Through one-on-one meetings, we work with you to build a sense of community and rapport that provides a foundation for growth. Once you’re on your way, you can put your knowledge about the relationship between business and cultures to good use!

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