Culture and etiquette

Understanding the cultural differences of export markets can greatly improve your chances of success.

A deeper understanding of an overseas culture will help you spot new market opportunities, influence your customers’ buying behaviour and prevent you from inadvertently causing offence.

At times, cultural differences and protocols may seem overwhelming. However in business, it’s more important spending time understanding the culture and etiquette than it is learning the language.

Familiarise yourself with local customs and etiquette, from business methods, dress and diet to history and religious customs. Most importantly, be flexible and be yourself.

Areas where etiquette may differ

Before exporting to a new country, use the checklist below to ensure you are aware of any differences.

Time Some countries operate at a faster pace, others slower. Some do business late at night. Others shut in the middle of the day. Be flexible.
Shaking hands In conservative countries, men should wait for women to extend their hand first before shaking hands. Women doing business in a Muslim country should not offer their hand to shake to a man.
Negotiation styles Some overseas customers value haggling, while others may wait until after an official business meeting to make a decision.
Which hand? In Asian countries, always use your right hand for eating, shaking hands, offering a gift, pointing or touching anything.
Colours The symbolism behind colours can vary greatly. Review your promotional materials. For example in Japan and Thailand the colour white signifies purity, while in China it signifies mourning and should be avoided.
Greetings In some countries, addressing someone by their first name is preferred, while in other countries, it is by their surname eg Mr Huang. If in doubt, simply ask, “What should I call you?”
Business cards The procedure for exchanging business cards can vary. For example, in China, it is customary to give and receive cards with both hands, holding the card corners between the thumb and forefinger.
Food If you are entertaining guests, remember some cultures are not used to cheese or butter and lamb is not always popular, so consider omitting these items from the menu.
Restaurant seating If you’re not sure whether to sit, wait to be seated or sit at a lower place away from the host and be invited up, rather than be asked to drop down.
Sales practices Getting equal mind share in a large, highly competitive marketplace may require you to promote more strongly than they are accustomed to.
Networking Networks and intermediaries may be used more frequently and effectively than in New Zealand, such as in the United States.
Follow up In some countries where competition is stronger, following up is a natural course of business. Not following up can infer a lack of interest in their business.

Avoiding cultural gaffes

In some cultures, gestures or actions you would not give a second thought to using in New Zealand may cause misunderstandings or even offence. For example, pointing, beckoning, the ‘OK’ sign, the ‘thumbs up’ sign or putting your hands on your hips or in your pockets can all be considered offensive in some countries.

Other practices you should avoid internationally include:

  • eating with your left hand
  • chewing gum
  • blowing your nose in public or at the table
  • wearing hats, coats, boots or other outer clothing inside or at the table
  • showing the soles of your feet or touching somebody with your shoe
  • tossing or ‘dealing’ business cards across the table
  • writing on cards in front of your hosts / guests
  • writing in red ink 
  • giving gifts of excessive value 
  • giving gifts with negative cultural associations eg avoid sets of four (considered unlucky), knives or scissors (symbolises conflict), clocks, fans or handkerchiefs (associated with death), carved or decorated boxes (may be viewed as a package without a gift.)

Top 10 tips for business etiquette overseas

1. Plan in advance. Before you go, find out as much as possible about the country, organisation and representative you will be meeting with.

2. Dress more formally. As a general rule, formal dress is a sign of respect. It is also the safest option if you’re not sure what to wear.

3. Learn a little about the culture. People generally appreciate foreigners taking the time to learn something about their country.

4. Consider bilingual business cards. It may be useful to have a set of business cards printed in English on one side and the local language on the other.

5. Keep business cards on the table. When receiving a business card, read it, try to say something complimentary about the card and keep it out on the table during the meeting. The card should also be received with two hands in numerous Asian countries.

6. Address the most senior manager first. Always greet and shake hands with the most senior person first. If an interpreter is used, face the business prospect when talking.

7. Accept dishes at restaurants. It’s important to accept dishes, even if you don’t end up eating it. Try any food given to you. You can leave dishes you don’t want to eat to one side.

8. Give gifts. Gift giving can be an important part of building relationships in many cultures. Bring a unique New Zealand gift, such as wine, food, or books featuring New Zealand landscapes.

9. Be professional. Be sure to arrive on time to meetings (even a little early) and limit small talk to the first few minutes of the meeting.

10. Develop personal relationships. Outline how you will keep in touch through regular visits and / or local alliances on the ground. Reassure them that it is easy to do business with you.

Additional information

If possible, seek advice from New Zealand businesses working in the country. Foreign embassies in New Zealand can also provide advice or point you towards their in-country trade bodies. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a list of foreign representatives in New Zealand.

You can find country specific information on business etiquette via the following links:

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