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There are a number of key considerations when working with professionals from different cultures. Alex Miller reports

Whether working in a multinational company, moving abroad or working with foreign clients, there are a raft of social pitfalls to consider, to ensure you appear respectful and don’t unwittingly cause offence.

To become someone with whom others want to do business, and to avoid any inadvertent problems, it is always a good idea to prepare by becoming aware of the customs and etiquette for the nationalities you are doing business with. Often they can be intricate and far removed from what you are used to.


Some multinational companies and governments have very strict policies regarding their employees accepting gifts, while other nationalities simply don’t consider them at all.
Professionals from countries such as Malaysia and Paraguay frown upon any gift that could be construed as a bribe. In Malaysia you wouldn’t give a gift until you had established a relationship with the person, while in Singapore, government employees are not allowed to accept any gifts. The US limits the acceptable gift value in the region of $25.

However, in countries including Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, exchanging gifts is strongly rooted in tradition. Part of the tradition is also the gracious style used to present and receive them. When doing business in these countries, it may be a good idea to plan the giving process in advance in order to be confident with the process.

From a behavioural point of view, it’s very important in Asia and the Middle East to only use your right hand, or both hands, to offer or accept a gift. However, in Japan and Hong Kong, use both hands.
There are also national quirks to understand. In Singapore a recipient may ‘graciously refuse three times’ before accepting your gift. But in Chile, gifts are accepted and opened straightaway.
The key thing to keep in mind for any gift you select is its quality. Always choose quality items that are not ostentatious. If you have gifts with your company logo, it’s better if the logo is discreet – but avoid gifts featuring a company logo in Greece, Spain and Portugal altogether.
Hosting a meal at a renowned restaurant is always a good business practice. A fine dinner is a universally accepted way to show them you appreciate the business relationship you have with them and presents an opportunity to build a mutual rapport.

Professionals in Brazil, the UK, Panama and Peru enjoy being invited as guests for a meal and the Greeks look forward to an evening filled with dining. In China, plan for a banquet, especially if you are being honoured with one.


If you are not 100% sure what is acceptable, a safe bet for men is to wear conservative suits with subtle colours and a tie. Women should avoid high heels and short-sleeved blouses – revealing clothing is considered offensive to businessmen in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

When it comes to casual dress for both men and women, again the safe option is that it should be conservative. Short-sleeved shirts and long trousers are preferred for men, while shorts are only acceptable when exercising. Women should keep their upper arms, chest, back, and legs covered at all times. If in doubt, women should also wear long trousers when exercising. Another tip is to be careful not to use leather products such as belts or shoes when meeting Hindu colleagues.


When it comes to acceptable behaviour, there are a number of safe ways to communicate if you are again unsure of the local ways and methods. For starters, never write on a business card you are handed or put it straight into your wallet or pocket – instead carry a small card case.

Also, don’t physically touch or pat a colleague and, when speaking, try not to point, but if you must, use an open palm.

Standing with your hands on your hips can be interpreted as an angry, aggressive posture, and avoid winking as that may be interpreted as either an insult or a sexual proposition.

But perhaps most importantly of all, make sure you are on time to all meetings. This is vital in most cultures and shows professionalism and respect.

Last updated: 11 Aug 2015