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Navigating International Business Culture

Knowing and understanding the unwritten rules of international business culture is important, whether you’re on a business trip or working abroad as an expat. The InterNations Expat Magazine summarizes a few key aspects of global business etiquette for you.
Doing business in an international and intercultural context can be a challenge.

Business etiquette is a vast subject which inevitably varies from country to country. In fact, the term “international business culture” might seem misleading, as there is hardly “one” single, monolithic approach. So while the term does not refer to one specific culture, it raises people’s awareness of the fact that business happens in an international and cross-cultural context. Doing business abroad requires an understanding of this international context - a certain degree of cultural awareness.

It’s the Attitude!

Knowing how foreign cultures differ from your own and what kind of behavior you should expect and avoid is probably the first step in the right direction. It is essential that you leave an “our way is the best way” attitude at home and try to adjust to a different world. Your business partners know that many unwritten rules are new to you and will surely forgive you some minor etiquette mistakes. However, if your overall attitude is the problem, you will probably watch quite a few business relationships go sour.

Fortunately, there are countless books on international business culture and even a number of smartphone applications which allow you to quickly look up the most important advice on national and international business culture.


Gift-giving is probably one of the trickiest aspects of international business culture. In some countries, presenting small gifts early on in a business relationship is expected. In others, it may be perceived as a bribe and will therefore be an offence to your business partners. And then there are those special cases in which gifts are expected at a later point, after a solid business relationship has been established.

The rules of receiving and treating gifts also vary greatly within international business culture. In Asia and the Middle East, gifts, much like business cards, are received with either both hands or your right hand, respectively. In Singapore or China, the recipient may politely decline the gift three times before accepting it. While it is considered extremely rude in many Asian countries to open a gift in the presence of the gift-giver, people from many South American countries, such as Chile, tend to open gifts right away.

Choosing Business Gifts

When choosing a gift, try to keep the religious and social context of your host country in mind. A bottle of good wine or champagne may be an acceptable token at home. In Muslim countries, however, it can be a violation of religious laws and an offence to your business partners. The same is true for certain types of food, such as pork in predominantly Muslim or Jewish countries, or beef in countries with a big Hindu population, such as India.

Aside from religious laws, there are other pitfalls in when it comes to gift-giving. Certain objects and color schemes can have a negative meaning and should be avoided. In China, for instance, white is associated with death. Choose something red instead - this color represents good luck. Whatever type of gift you choose in the end, make sure that it has some value. Avoid gifts that bear your company’s logo.

Business dinners are often treated like gifts. If you receive an invitation, you should definitely reciprocate. Not only will it show your appreciation of your business contacts, but also present you as an accomplished person versed in the rules of international business culture.

For more information on related topics, check our articles on international business etiquette and cultural differences in international business.