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International Business Customs

Galavante Confidential – International Business Customs
June 6, 2012
By , Galavante Contributor

Business as usual? Nowadays the usual doesn’t cut it. Today’s international players know there’s a whole new set of customs to learn in order to get ahead. You’ve got to know what’ll seal, not sour, the deal. Much like a romance, wooing business abroad requires the right combination of sensitivity, style, timing, delicacy, confidence, and, above all, respect. But first, a bit of friendly advice: In business, just as at the bar, it’s best to keep religion, politics, and race off the table – unless you want your deal off the table too.     


The swimsuits on Brazil’s beaches may be famously tiny, but its economy is anything but. As the fifth largest country in the world and with a population of 200 million, Brazil has built one of the world’s top 10 economies in mining, agriculture, bio fuels, manufacturing, oil, and gas.

Rules of Courting: Good friends make good business in Brazil, but developing relationships takes time. Put business further down the agenda than discussions of family, culture, and the previous night’s soccer match. Keep in mind that in a country almost the size of the United States, significant regional differences remain, especially between the two major business centers, Sao Paolo (think New York) and Rio de Janeiro (think L.A.).

Punctuality: Sao Paolo expects more punctuality than laidback Rio, but “I was stuck in traffic” works for 30 minutes and not much more.

Greeting: Be ready with a firm handshake, but don’t be surprised if that soon changes to bro-hugs or kisses on the cheeks for the ladies, especially if business is going well.

Dress: Brazilians pride themselves on looking good. Keep suits traditional for men, but women are encouraged to dress feminine and even show a bit of leg, especially in Rio.

Gifts: Premature giving can be awkward, so wait until your relationship has legs. When you do offer a gift, make it personal, such as their favorite wine, music CD, or chocolates, but never give cash. Avoid purple and black wrapping paper, which symbolizes mourning.

Gestures: Using the thumb-to-forefinger OK sign may make the situation decidedly not, as you’ve just flipped the Brazilian bird. Stick with a thumbs-up.

Deal Breaker: Criticize a Brazilian colleague in front of others and leave empty-handed. Praise the Argentinean soccer team and you’d be lucky to leave in one piece. 

Final Recommendation: Hiring a local “despachante” can greatly oil the wheels of the Brazilian bureaucracy and turn them in your favor.


What isn’t made in China these days? The country’s exploding economic might is shifting into energy production and green technology at full throttle, creating a pool of disposable income by a new class of elites.  

Rules of Courting: Show respect to thy business partner. Remember titles, praise accomplishments, ensure proper seating arrangements – and give them a sense of victory on the deal.

Dress: For men, leave the golf tie at home and stick to conservative suits. Women need to button up the neck, drop the hemline, and avoid heels if it makes you taller than the host. 

Greetings: Begin handshakes with the eldest and use proper titles. Present and receive business cards with two hands, and make sure it spotlights your own title.

Punctuality: Punctuality is a virtue and that goes for the end of meetings as well. Don’t keep anyone late.

Gifts: Consider gifts that the recipient can display with pride. Choose something that speaks of home, but not associated with Chinese funerals, like clocks, handkerchiefs, or flowers; and don’t wrap them in white, blue, or black paper. Food baskets are the safest (if you can get it through customs). Always present with two hands.

Gestures: In business, all of Chinese body language adopts a poker face, so keep gesticulations to a minimum and watch you don’t raise your pinky while sipping tea as you might direct the insult at the wrong person. If they clap for you, clap back in royal style.

Deal Breaker: Public disagreement is a direct affront. Chinese would rather say “yes” to avoid conflict, even if their mind says “no.”

Final Recommendation: Bring the best interpreter you can find, who can tell you not just what was said, but what was meant.


With over a billion people, the world’s largest democracy benefits from its exploding population of techno-savvy young people eager to make inroads in global business, especially in manufacturing, textiles, technology, and energy production.

Rules of Courting: Karma pervades every aspect of life in India, and business draws as much wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita as the yogis. Negotiations take as long as they need to take, so get ready to go with the flow. Pounding your fist and pointing rigid fingers to fine lines will turn fortune against you.

Dress: India’s exceptionally hot weather can loosen ties and unbutton shirts for men, but not for women, who should maintain necklines high and covered legs. Whatever you wear, avoid leather.

Gifts: In a culture as ancient and complex as India, the potential for offense is high, so do some research into the ethnic, religious, and cultural status of the recipient before choosing a gift. Luckily, chocolate cuts across all of them, but be sure to wrap it in yellow, green, or red paper. Always give with the right hand; the left is unclean.

Punctuality: Cancellations are frequent, so remain flexible about meeting times. Schedule your own in peak business hours, 11am–4pm, when everyone is most likely not to be stuck in traffic.

Greetings: Most Western-style businesses have adopted the handshake, just not so aggressively firm. Things get trickier between men and women. Let her initiate and follow suit.

Gestures: Aggression is a downer in Hinduism, so keep your body language passive and avoid hands on your hips, whistling, winking, and any sudden movements.

Deal Breaker: Due to very tense relationship with neighboring Pakistan, avoid discussions of it. Also turning down any food presented to you is a much bigger insult than not finishing it. 

Final Recommendation: Indians’ names tell a lot about their background, so researching your partners will give you lots of ammo for your charm offensive.


As the world’s second largest exporter and Europe’s biggest economy, Germany continues to be the economic powerhouse of Europe. By the time all is said and done, this may be the only country left to do business with in Europe. 

Rules of Courting: Ironically, charming German business colleagues means dispensing with it altogether. Keep business negotiations and proposals straight, potent with facts and figures, and no fruity additives or frilly umbrellas.

Dress: Germans appreciate an ordered appearance as well, with classic suits and ties for men and conservative knee-length skirts for women, but no open-toes. Don’t remove your jacket unless they do.

Gifts: Chocolate and wine and luxury pens are favorites, and exotic, foreign brands impress more.

Punctuality: Being punctual is not just about respect or politeness in Germany, but a representation of your organizational and planning abilities. If you arrive early, take a walk around the block. If late,  well…don’t be late.

Greetings: Germany is the best place to bust out your uncle’s firm handshake but not Aunt Bessie’s hugs and kisses. Make sure it accompanies titles, especially academic ones.

Gestures: Keep your hands to yourself (but not in your pockets) and posture erect. If your partners rap their knuckles on the table, they’re not prepping to pummel you, but instead showing agreement.

Deal Breaker: Germany is not the place to show off your Colonel Klink impersonation. In fact, keep humor out of your meetings and presentations altogether. Business is no laughing matter.

Final Recommendation:  Unless you have a high tolerance, do not try to match your German colleagues beer for beer at post-meeting socializing. Knowing your limits is more impressive.


At this point, it’s just silly money in Russia. With so much disposable income, the Russians are buying the most expensive real estate – from London to New York to the South of France. Bring you’re A-game if you’re invited to the deal table. 

Rules of Courting: For business in Russia, only the savviest chess players need apply. The goal is checkmate, and you’ll need your best moves to win. Be flexible, patient, decisive, and transparent, even under the bright lights. If things get emotional, you’re going in the right direction.

Dress: Keep your feet on the ground literally and figuratively. Wear conservative but top-quality suits for men and knee-length skirts for women, with perfectly polished shoes. 

Gifts: Don’t be a cheapskate or give something easily available (like vodka). If you offer flowers, stay away from even numbers.

Punctuality: Punctuality is most certainly expected of you, but not of your Russian counterpart. Expect to wait as a test of your patience.

Greetings: In addition to firm handshakes with direct eye contact, appeal to Russian pride with a few courtesy expressions like “dobry den” (good day) and “ochin priyatna” (nice to meet you).

Gestures: Remember your mother’s advice not to point. In Russia, direct with the whole hand and keep them out of your pockets.

Deal Breaker: Insult Russian pride and get the kiss of death. Tread carefully.

Final Recommendation: Brush up on Pushkin. Russians are extremely proud of their art and literature, and expect you to be too.