Doing business over Zoom or Teams is all well and good, but it’s widely agreed that nothing seals the deal faster or helps build fruitful business relationships than making personal connections in person.
With corporate travel at home and overseas on the rebound – experts predict it may even reach pre-pandemic levels later this year – it’s a perfect time to brush up on your work trip etiquette.
To help, here are 10 tips to ensure you’re the person on-road ambassador for your business.
- 1. Learn about the local culture
- 2. Learn a few choice phrases
- 3. Keep it professional, always
- 4. Learn how to greet and address people
- 5. A little extra can go a long way
- 6. Take the country’s ‘time’ into account
- 7. Praise the country and its cuisine; never criticise it
- 8. From small talk, big things come
- 9. Be careful with social media
- 10. Don’t forget the people back at HQ
1. Learn about the local culture
Although Australian business culture merely requires being on-time, giving a firm handshake and wearing either smart casual or a suit, other countries have distinct customs.
For example, in Asia, handing over a business card carefully with both hands, the receiver noting the details on it, and then placing it in their shirt pocket (not pants pocket) is a mark of respect and a traditional ice-breaker in a meeting.
In China, a vigorous Aussie-style hand-shake can be seen as aggressive, while a light handshake with a slight nod of the head is normal.
The best way to find out the customs of your destination country is via Google. For example: China business customs.
2. Learn a few choice phrases
Although the lingua franca of the world is English, it can still be annoying to citizens of non-English-speaking countries when travellers make no effort whatsoever to use the local language.
A little effort goes a long way – and it can be worth picking up a few phrases that convey gratitude. You won’t be having any conversations in the foreign language, but you can learn “good morning”, “thank you”, “after you” and “let’s get a beer!”
There are several handy apps that can make this a lot easier – Drops and Duolingo, for example – as well as dedicated translation devices such as the Fluentalk T1.
Even if your efforts get somewhat lost in translation, the effort is always appreciated.
3. Keep it professional, always
When you’re travelling in a group or with work colleagues, you’ll naturally relax a bit more than you might in the office. But bear in mind when you go back to work, the normal professional relationship will resume.
You should be particularly aware of not over-sharing colleagues’ personal details with other colleagues, or your hosts, who might not have been already aware of them. Commenting on a colleague’s family, personal appearance, previous holidays, and so on, can cause uncomfortable moments on the trip or back home.
In terms of how you deal with your hosts, what is professional differs from country to country. For example, in Auckland, having a glass of wine and polite conversation with your host on their yacht may be ideal, while in many Asian countries, singing at a karaoke bar is entirely business appropriate.
4. Learn how to greet and address people
While Australian business abandoned formal titles in conversational speech a long time ago (you don’t hear “Chairman Smith” very often, for example), in some countries, it is absolutely essential.
In China, for example, it is expected that you refer to businesspeople by their title and family name – Director Huang, for example. It’s also frowned upon to become too familiar too quickly – familiarity is something that’s earned over time.
People in China should also get used to being addressed by their surname. “Good morning, Jones” may sound a little bit boarding-school, but it’s heard commonly enough in China, where family names precede given names.
On the other hand, in Italy, it is normal to kiss a new business acquaintance’s cheeks (sometimes up to three times depending on the region) and have a long handshake – and it is considered rude to refuse a second helping on your plate if offered!
5. A little extra can go a long way
Sending a thank you gift or card to people who hosted you on your trip can create a huge impact in terms of goodwill, as can sending a small thank you to your travel organiser.
Needless to say, next time you're heading overseas, the people involved will remember you positively and doors will open more easily.
6. Take the country’s ‘time’ into account
Different countries treat time in different ways. For example, in Japan, if a meeting is set for 1pm, you should be there and ready to start by 12.45pm. In Fiji, deadlines and schedules are loosely defined.
If you’re visiting Mexico, lunch meetings generally won’t start until 2pm at the earliest, after which you’ll likely be spending at least a couple of hours or more at the restaurant.
Don’t take offence or get stressed if people don’t turn up to your meeting on-time – unless you’re in a country where punctuality is an absolutely core competency for business.
7. Praise the country and its cuisine; never criticise it
You only have to think about incoming travellers in Australia talking loudly about “how the beaches aren’t as nice as they’re made out to be” or “it’s a rip-off to eat here” to know why it’s important to be a gracious visitor to a country!
Even if an aspect of a country’s cuisine is blatantly off putting (the dishwater coffee in America springs to mind) or the country has glaring and widely reported social or governmental problems, never bring these up unless your host does first.
8. From small talk, big things come
Unless you work in PR or are a star salesperson, it’s more likely than not that you find making small-talk a challenge. However, it’s the social niceties that help put people at ease and let more important conversations come later.
There are a remarkable number of good online resources to help you learn small-talk – it’s something you can study just like any other business topic.
The best way to fit in well to a foreign culture is to let your hosts talk about it, and you listen, with polite segues to encourage them to tell you more.
Some specific tips that help: make some enquiries about the people you’re meeting before you meet them, so you have a few areas of conversation you know they’ll be comfortable with in advance.
Read the newspaper in the hotel to keep some current local events up your sleeve for impromptu discussion (sports can be risky though, if the local team isn’t doing well).
Open the conversation with a small compliment – everyone likes a compliment. It could be a compliment on their clothes, their recent career successes, how well an event is going, or the food you’ve been enjoying.
Make an effort to remember their name and use it in conversation. Again, this is an area where some pre-work can be very helpful, if you’re not good at absorbing names!
If the person you’re talking to conveys an opinion you personally disagree with, it’s a good discipline to mask your opinion, say something neutral and try to move the conversation on to a different topic. In business, showing how much you disagree with someone will very rarely achieve anything.
Close the conversation gracefully – don’t just melt away from a group without excusing yourself with a positive comment such as “it was nice meeting you.”
Research the taboo topics in the country you’re visiting to avoid either committing a faux pas or appearing standoffish by refusing to discuss something that’s a common topic of conversation.
In many countries, topics you probably shouldn’t launch into off your own bat (unless you understand the cultural sensitivities around them well) include religion, money and salary – but in other countries these are frequently discussed.
9. Be careful with social media
A modern trap for business travellers is posting status updates about their travels for the folks back home, without realising that their hosts might also be reading them – or may see them later.
As a result, it’s very poor form to comment critically on a country’s culture or cuisine on Twitter, TikTok or a non-private Facebook account while you’re there.
Some countries also specifically ban social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Even if you are able to access them through a VPN service, bear in mind the risk involved in breaching a country’s internet policies – you might appear disrespectful to your hosts and their government’s policies, and you might even end up on a visa blacklist down the track.
If you really want to do it, it’s safer to post it as an observation later some time after you get back, away from the public eye of Twitter, and in Facebook where at least you can set your privacy settings so that only trusted friends see your updates.
10. Don’t forget the people back at HQ
Travelling for business is something that can make other people in the office with desk-bound jobs green with envy. More than that, even if you’re looking after your email and calls while you’re away, your colleagues are likely going to be handling a bit of extra load on your behalf while you’re away.
You’ll score immeasurable brownie points with them if you bring your colleagues back some goodies from overseas.
Also consider asking around the office to see if there’s anything anyone wants you to buy while you’re overseas, to avoid international freight charges and credit card fees.
The personal cost to you will be relatively small, but the goodwill you’ll garner with your colleagues may be felt for months or years to come.