Business meeting etiquette: 12 tips for doing business around the world

While meetings anywhere in the world have a common goal – to exchange ideas, build relationships, conduct negotiations and make decisions – there are many routes to achieving these goals. Meetings could be rigidly structured, with everybody talking in turn, or chaotic, with animated brainstorming and multiple interruptions. Notions of authority, hierarchy and communication vary from one culture to another, and from one corporate culture to another, so in any situation, a little consideration and understanding of etiquette can go a long way. Here are some general pointers:

  1. Be punctual. Not all cultures value punctuality but whether you are the host or a meeting attendee, there is little to be gained by arriving late. Adjust your expectations of the arrival of the other participants according to the dominant culture at the meeting. In many African and Arab cultures, for example, it is usual to be kept waiting, especially by government officials. If you are in an unfamiliar environment with bad traffic or poor infrastructure, build in extra time to get to your meeting or between meetings.
  2. Understand why people are late. In cultures where time is regarded as polychronic, people will multi-task. Time will be given to relationships rather than schedules. If a visitor drops in unannounced, they will usually be seen, pushing subsequent appointments into lateness. Not receiving this visitor would be regarded as rude. Polychronic cultures include those of Latin America, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa (although to a lesser extent in South Africa).
  3. These cultures also exhibit similar conduct during meetings. Time will be dedicated at the beginning of the meeting to small talk. Phones will be answered and distractions may be caused by unexpected visitors dropping in. Agendas will not necessarily be followed; if new ideas are introduced, they will be discussed. Do not get impatient; this will only cause you to lose face and appear inflexible.
  4. Observe the hierarchy. Asian cultures tend to attend meetings in groups, with a strict protocol as to who speaks and when. You should attend the meeting in a group of similar size and rank and observe the formality of the seating plan. In Japan, the most senior person will sit down first and others will be directed to their seats. Nobody sits before the leader and nobody speaks (other than small talk) before they open the meeting.
  5. Allow time for small talk. In relationship-based cultures including, for example, Italy, Mexico, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, building a rapport comes before getting down to business. American and British executives are inclined to put priority on speed and ‘getting down to business’ but many cultures will not enter negotiations until trust has been established. If you are offered refreshments, it is polite to accept hospitality.
  6. Set expectations at the beginning of the meeting, once it’s appropriate to talk business. Say why the meeting has been called and what you hope to achieve from it. This does not mean presenting a rigid agenda but it is perfectly acceptable to make your purpose clear, wherever in the world you are doing business.
  7. Make adjustments to your own meeting style to get what you want while not offending the local culture. In many Asian cultures, speaking over one’s superior, or disagreeing with them in public will cause them to lose face. If you regard someone as an expert whose opinion you seek but know they will not speak up in a meeting in front of their boss, there is no harm in emailing them separately, or having a conversation after the meeting. In a less formal environment, give people a chance to make their point by going around the table asking each participant for input, or emailing all participants in advance asking for discussion topics.
  8. Adjust your selling and presentation technique, too. In the USA, you will need to be to the point, with a slick sales pitch and a focus on the bottom line. Germans and Swiss may appreciate a more technical approach. British, generally, regard a heavy sell with suspicion. African cultures, again, generally, focus more on past achievements and elaborate speeches.
  9. If you are dealing with colleagues whose first language differs from your own, or people who are participating by video link, take time to reiterate points and be clear that everybody understands. Speak clearly and avoid jargon. It is all too easy for points to be lost in translation.
  10. Study the negotiating style of the culture you are dealing with and prepare for any tactics they may use. Arab cultures may express horror at the inadequacy of your offer and even storm out of the room in mock disgust. Japanese and Chinese negotiators may appear inscrutable and employ long periods of silence to unnerve impatient Westerners. Forewarned is forearmed.
  11. Have some idea before the meeting whether it will be followed by hospitality; either you inviting your colleagues to lunch or dinner or vice versa. In relationship-based cultures like Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia or Spain, this is highly likely. Declining an invitation would be seen as rude. Do not book back-to-back appointments in these cultures.
  12. In any culture, follow-up is appropriate but again, allowances should be made. Arab cultures value the spoken word and may be insulted by a long list of emailed action points and deadlines. Indians, on the other hand, tend to favor detailed follow-up and a clear summary of what you understood from the meeting. But a company with its own defined culture may impose that culture anywhere in the world, regardless of local customs. Always do your homework.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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