Unexpected differences in business etiquette
The importance of understanding cultural differences in business etiquette can be easy to overlook when setting your sights on international expansion. Even when countries share the same official language, such as Canada, America and the United Kingdom, it doesn’t mean that they share a homogenous culture. We often say to our clients that understanding the cultural customs of the country where you want to do business demonstrates respect towards their culture, and it is a great way to gain trust and respect. At Bridgehead, we specialise in helping businesses to expand within Europe, Canada and America. Here we cherry pick some fascinating differences in key business etiquettes in these parts of the world.
Business etiquette in United Kingdom
Let’s start with the UK, the Brits are known to be a polite, yet an unfriendly nation. Here’s our take on navigating the British business etiquette.
Meet and Greet
Curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the British handshake has a slightly uncertain future. However, as business handshakes have traditionally formed a key component of a greeting, let’s assume that things will return to the “old” normal and we will address them in this article. In Britain, it is far better to offer a handshake rather than a cheek to be kissed. A little small talk would not go amiss; foreign visitors are often amazed by a Brit’s propensity to discuss the weather.
“Whatever the weather, someone will be complaining about it – too hot, too cold, too rainy, too dry, can’t wait for snow, oh no not snow, etc. – it’s quite amazing how often you might end up discussing weather in the UK!” – Veronika
From a punctuality perspective, good timekeeping matters. In business, you should aim to arrive a few minutes early. However, whilst the British tend to start meetings promptly, they are often far less efficient in finishing them, often allowing them to overrun.
Socialising & networking
Having drinks after work is often common. If you get invited to the pub, prepare to fork out for a “round”. This means you must buy everyone in the party a drink. Failing to do this, will inevitably lead to discussions about your “stinginess” after you leave.
You may witness some “bants”. This is teasing or mocking conversations amongst friends. Unless you’re very well versed in the local culture it’s best to leave banter to native Brits, as failing to understand the subtle nuances could lead to unpleasant misunderstandings!
Maintaining a strong business network through personal and professional contacts is very important to do business in the UK1.
During business meetings, the dress code nowadays is no tie for men. Some men do, however, carry an emergency tie just in case. For formal occasions, “black tie” means a bow tie and dinner jacket for men. The dress code “business casual” is more common these days although the variance is huge. As a rule of thumb, unless you are Jeff Bezos, then opt for a smarter look over casual.
In the workplace, a British person’s communication style is often showered with indirect subtleties. For example, a British line manager might say “If you get a chance, you might want to look into…” Those not native to Britain and who are accustomed to a more direct style may not identify this as an instruction to carry out a task.
The British people give importance to a healthy-work life balance. However, it is not uncommon for people to be working overtime. This trend is gaining momentum due to the presence of many international companies1.
Business etiquette in Italy
The Italians value close relationships. If you want to enter the Italian market, it will be important to find a well-connected partner to make introductions.
Meet and greet
There are a few things to be wary of, regarding body language. Make direct eye contact, this is how Italians display their interest. Also, personal space tends to be a shorter distance, therefore Italians may stand closer to you than you are accustomed to2.
Italians love small talk and every business discussion begins with it3. In business meetings, as well as shaking hands with everyone present, you should also bid farewell to everyone.
To the Italians, punctuality isn’t the be and end all. Be prepared to wait a while before your Italian counterpart appears or lets you into the office. It is also not uncommon for business meetings to start late3. However, you are expected to be on time of course.
Socialising & networking
“Did you know that in Italy, you’re more likely to get a deal over a long lunch?” says Simon Betts, Client Director at Bridgehead. It is common for Italians to conduct business over hospitality such as a long lunch lasting up to three hours. Declining a hospitality invitation will be insulting. When you finish eating, your knife and fork should be positioned at 5:25 with the fork on the left and knife on the right. A final note on dining, the person who invites is also the one who is expected to foot the bill!
The Italians place high emphasis on dress code, including business settings3. Your attire reflects your social status, success, and competence as a business owner, so make sure to dress like you mean business!
During business meetings, don’t take offence if you get interrupted whilst you’re speaking. Speaking simultaneously is part of the Italian communication style. Conflicts in Italy are often solved through discussion.
In Italy, getting the work done at all costs is given more importance as opposed to maintaining a healthy work-life balance3.
Business etiquette in France
Professional protocol is taken seriously in France and it’s also very different to other parts of the world.
Meet and Greet
France places a great deal of emphasis on formality. Upon your first meeting, remember to always address your superiors and anyone you meet as “Monsieur” or “Madame”. Introductions are made using both your first and last name. Unlike the American firm handshake, the French handshake is light and brisk. Use a loose grip with just one or two up and down movements4. A kiss on the cheek is also a fairly common way of greeting people, although mostly restricted to women5.
The French have a laissez faire attitude to punctuality. That said, there are regional variations. The further south you go, the more relaxed it tends to be. It is not uncommon for meetings to start late and carry on past their scheduled end if the topic requires more debate5. People aim to strike a balance between quality and time. It is unacceptable to respect a deadline if the delivered product is of poor quality.
Socialising & networking
The French business lunch is long and formal. Remember to keep your hands resting on the table, not on your lap. The topic of business should begin after the dessert course and is initiated by the host. Business lunches consisting of a lot of small talk are an integral part of the country’s culture5.
Making personal contacts to further business is a big part of the French culture. Receiving a recommendation or an introduction from a common contact is one of the best ways to start a new discussion. That said, French people are very careful before they recommend anyone5.
To the French, appearance is of utmost importance. Wearing quality attire, jewellery and accessories will earn you brownie points. A word of caution, there are no dress down Fridays in France, so avoid relaxing your dress code at the end of the week.
The French prefer an indirect mode of communication, which allows them to gain time to get to know their interlocutor better. It is important for them to reach a certain level of familiarity, which also requires knowledge of certain elements of the other person’s private life5. Like the Italians, it is common to interrupt someone before they finish speaking. You should view this as a positive that they are engaged. Likewise, don’t be afraid to interrupt too.
Avoid using aggressive sales tactics during meetings. Learn to be patient and expect a lot of discussion. Decisions are generally not made in the first meeting; they are made after much consideration and by someone at the top.
Conflicts are usually handled by the people concerned through formal meetings. If no solution is available, then it is escalated to senior management, being careful so as to not breach the hierarchic line5.
Even though historically work-life balance was considered to be very important in France, the scenario is witnessing gradual change with people often working after hours. This culture is also gaining momentum due to the presence of many international companies5.
Business etiquette in America
Americans are informal and friendly compared to other countries. This friendliness spills over into business and those not used to it may feel overwhelmed. Here’s our guide to conducting business, States-style.
Meet and Greet
Americans are full of enthusiasm and friendliness. Upon a greeting, expect a vigorously firm handshake or a pat on the back or even a friendly arm touch.
You might get asked the question, “What’s up?” This doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to know how you are doing, they don’t expect a detailed response either, so a “great, thanks” reply will suffice.
The U.S. is a big country with many micro-cultures. Nonetheless, shaking hands and maintaining eye contact are usually considered important aspects of non-verbal communication6.
Punctuality is important in the states. Meetings are scheduled in advance, and being on time, quickly getting down to business and adhering to an agenda are expected6.
Socialising & networking
Business can be conducted over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Although there is small talk, often the conversation will revolve around business. The rule of thumb is the person inviting will be the person who pays for it.
Your napkin should be placed on your lap after you are seated. Keep it on your lap at all times during the meal. Americans like people to eat a lot so if you are offered a second helping, take it.
In the US, maintaining a strong business network through personal and professional contacts is considered important to succeed in business. Although most of the business deals are mainly based on contracts, knowing the other party helps establishing trust, and reducing the time taken to come to an agreement6.
There is a wide variation when it comes to dress code. It depends on the region, industry, position as well as the company policy. We’d recommend you err on the side of caution and opt for classic business attire in your first meeting. You can then take a cue from what they are wearing, and choose to follow suit (excuse the pun).
Their mantra is “time is money”, and are, therefore, quick to get to the point and have a direct manner.
Americans are at home when it comes to confrontation. Don’t be surprised if you witness public disagreement and criticism. Business conflicts are resolved through mutual discussions which aim to find a solution acceptable to all parties involved. Senior management act as moderators to resolve the conflict if required.
Americans are focused on the result. They don’t necessarily need a relationship with you to strike a deal. Instead, they desire traits such as likability, honesty and friendliness from their business partners.
In modern technological companies, more horizontal structures are prevalent, while hierarchy is evident in state-owned enterprises and other legacy companies. Bargaining usually depends on the type of business, however it is very common during negotiations6.
Even though work-life balance is considered an important aspect in the US, the scenario is witnessing gradual change with people often working after hours. This culture is also gaining momentum due to the presence of many international companies6. However, new age technology companies are working towards providing a good work-life balance for their employees to achieve greater productivity6.
Business etiquette in Canada
Canada is a large country therefore cultural variations occur throughout the different regions7. Ensure you research your region; this is both expected and appreciated. Paul McIntosh, Founder of Bridgehead advises; “Do avoid comparing Canada with the US, the Canadians will not appreciate it!”
Meet and Greet
It is important to give people their personal space and physical contact should be limited to a handshake  and accompanied by strong eye-contact.
The Canadians value punctuality so do make it a priority to be on time. Business meetings are scheduled at least a week in advance and schedules are strictly followed, with meetings finishing on time8.
Socialising & networking
Business lunches are usually short. There’s no alcohol and a light lunch is preferred. Be mindful not to start eating until everyone at the table has been served.
If you receive an invitation out for drinks by your Canadian associate, it is wise to attend, refusals may be regarded as rude or insulting.
It is rather important to maintain a strong business network through personal and professional contacts to succeed in business in Canada8.
The Canadians are very weather aware, and you should dress according to the weather. The business dress code is conservative and well dressed.
Communication is quite direct in Canada, but some small talk is considered important to build a personal rapport .. This also applies to emails and telephone calls, keep these succinct and to the point. Canadians value and respect everyone’s opinions regardless of their position. Canada’s official language is both French and English, so don’t be surprised if both languages are used during meetings.
Maintaining strong eye contact is important in meetings to avoid coming across as bored or disinterested .
Business conflicts are resolved through discussions to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution that satisfies all parties involved. When mutual discussion does not yield results, a third party, preferably from senior management, can be involved8.
Having a good work-life balance is considered an important factor to be able to continue to perform well in your work8.
Knowing your market is key
Integrating into any new culture requires adaptation and learning. We cannot emphasise enough the importance of knowing your market – it’s one of the 5 pillars of a successful Go-to-market strategy.
For accelerated market entry you should work with a partner that already knows the market and the business etiquette, and has the connections for rapid results. Bridgehead can help your business grow within your home market, or expand into the UK, Europe & North America – get in touch today.
Insights on international expansion
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1. Statista, United Kingdom
2. Today Translations, Doing business in Italy
3. Statista, Italy
4. The Local, French business etiquette
5. Statista, France
6. Statista, United States
7. Today Translations, Doing business in Canada
8. Statista, Canada
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