For people living and working abroad, something as simple as greeting a new colleague or business partner can become a challenge. When pursuing a career abroad, there are many potential pitfalls. From communication blunders to time management and business lunches, different cultures handle all aspects of business life in many different ways.
Even with a lot of preparation, misunderstandings are not uncommon and can, in the worst case, even harm your career.
As the latest Expat Insider survey, one of the world’s most extensive surveys about living and working abroad, indicates, some business cultures are easier to get used to than others. While expats in countries like Singapore, Ireland, and Estonia find it easy to understand the local business etiquette, those in Japan, Saudi Arabia, and China generally struggle more.
The survey is conducted annually by InterNations, the world’s largest expat community with 3.5 million members in 420 destinations around the world.
What's appropriate in one country, might not be in another
While business etiquette in the UK seems relatively easy to get used to — the country ranks 9th in the Expat Insider 2018 survey — expats struggle more in Germany. Coming in 40th out of 53 countries for this factor, close to three in ten expats living there for less than two years (29%) find this hard. Just like your words and body language, the way you dress in a business setting carries meaning.
The formal attire that is appropriate in one country or field of work may not be expected after your move abroad.
In the UK, Terry worked as the director of a Swedish company’s subsidiary. Although the company culture was relatively informal — smart slacks, sports jackets, and neat shirts were the norm, rather than suits — keeping up this dress code while working in the agricultural sector in South Africa caused some issues.
“For the first few months of being in South Africa, I found it very difficult to pitch up at a facility and get to meet the farm manager or senior grower. It took a while to discover that, when they saw me arriving, they assumed I was the bank manager and promptly disappeared.”
Finally, one of his friends suggested a more casual dress code, and as soon as Terry had changed into chinos and open-neck, short-sleeved shirts, all went well.
His new business contacts were much more relaxed and open to discussing the systems Terry’s company was offering. Aside from the usual business etiquette rules, local customs and traditions have their way of seeping into expats’ work life.
Business etiquette blunders
In Thailand, the wai, a bow with hands clasped, is the common form of greeting. Here, the position of the hands is adjusted to reflect the position of the person you’re greeting. When doing business in Japan, it is best to do a bow before shaking hands.
In Latin American countries, on the other hand, a hug and even a kiss on the cheek is common, once you have established a relationship with your business partners.
Cathy, an expat from the USA, has experienced this after her move to Costa Rica, “As the American, I always go for the hand to shake and about half the time, this is correct. Other times, people lean in for the cheek kiss or extend one arm for the half hug, where I go to find their hand for a shake,” she says.
“It ends up being this awkward hug/kiss/shake showdown where all of us get confused and doubt our original actions, so we have to decide what’s appropriate.”
Luckily, these greeting showdowns have never caused any problems for her, and her colleagues are ready to navigate these situations together with her. “As the ‘new one’, I’m normally able to laugh it off and the team is gentle with me, so it’s funny. They have pretty much gotten used to it.”
According to the latest Expat Insider survey, Qatar is in fact one of the countries where it is hardest to get used to the local business etiquette. The country lands in the bottom 10 of the ranking, with more than three in ten expats (31%) saying that they find it hard to understand the etiquette (vs. 24%globally).Discussing business topics or holding interviews during lunch has become a common practice. The setting is more informal than in the conference room or at the office, and there’s the added bonus of enjoying some delicious food.
Beer during lunch?
Despite the casual environment, however, there are many faux pas that can happen. During an interview lunch in the USA, one newly returned expat ordered himself a beer, which is common practice in the UK.
“When the others interviewing me ordered iced teas, I suddenly realized I was back in the US where drinking alcohol at lunch was not the done thing.” Luckily, the interviewers were impressed by his confidence and boldness, and he got the job in the end.
This ease of doing business is also reflected in the Expat Insider 2018 ranking for business etiquette: the US ranks 7th out of 53 for this factor.
For another expat from the US, business lunch did not go over quite as smoothly. He was invited to the interior of Paraguay by the female owner of a farm.
Not thinking much of it, he decided to bring his newly arrived Italian wife along, forgetting that in Paraguay, women (though owners and decision makers) are not allowed at the table.
“My wife was sitting at a large table being the only woman, while the men were served by the owner.”
Although his faux pas created a quite uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, he was forgiven, and business went on as usual. In some countries, employees are expected to be extremely punctual, while you have some more flexibility with your working hours and lunch breaks in others. What seems like a small issue takes a lot of adjustment for some expats and can be the source of some major conflict at work.
Misunderstandings are not uncommon
If you’re working in the Middle East, for instance, you might notice that office hours are limited during the month of Ramadan. And expats in India might just be lucky enough to be part of Diwali celebrations at the office. Although Singapore is the easiest country to work in in terms of business etiquette according to the latest Expat Insider survey — 75% find it easy to get used to them compared to 46% globally —misunderstandings are not uncommon.
Arriving shortly before the Chinese New Year, one expat from the US was excited to experience this popular holiday. The secretary at their workplace handed out festive oranges to all employees for the occasion. However, it was only after eating the fruit, that they realized that all the other employees had displayed the oranges on their desks in pairs.
“I discreetly asked if I was supposed to eat them and found out that they should be left out as an auspicious sign of prosperity. I had only one left and had to figure out if I should eat it and get rid of the evidence or try to buy a second and pretend I hadn't eaten the symbol of a prosperous new year!”
Gift giving in general can be another cause for misunderstanding. Especially in a business setting, gifts carry meaning, from the color of the wrapping paper to the actual item being gifted.Tony, a British-Australian expat got a job with the government in Hong Kong in 1972. To his delight,he was invited to a colleague’s wedding just a few months later.
“So, what did I do? Well, I went out and bought them a toaster. I thought it was the right thing to do!” He soon realized that all the other guests gave little red envelopes full of money instead, as is customary in China and Hong Kong.
Such a hóngbao should contain enough money to cover the costs of the guest at the wedding and to appropriately represent the relationship to the recipient. It might be partly due to these rigid societal rules that Hong Kong achieves mediocre results for business etiquette, ranking 28th in the ExpatInsider 2018 survey, while China even comes in 51st, only ahead of Saudi Arabia and Japan.
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