Ten essential tips for business travel etiquette

By danwarne, May 5 2011
Ten essential tips for business travel etiquette

For many travellers, business trips are more about survival than perfection. Morning-to-night meetings, conferences and dinners can test one's skills in international diplomacy to the limit.

We've prepared a list of 10 tips to help make your next business trip smooth, and make your hosts remember your visit favourably!

#1 Learn a bit about the culture you're travelling into

Although Australian business culture merely requires being on-time, giving a firm handshake and a wearing either smart casual or a business 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.

It can be worth picking up a few phrases that convey gratitude. There are now iPhone apps that make this a lot easier -- for example Talk Chinese Free. 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!"

Also check our earlier review of the amazing Google Translate App which can help you get your message across to a non-English speaker in their local language.

#3 Keep it professional

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 at your destination

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 Wang, for example. It's also frowned upon to become too familiar too quickly -- familiarity is something that is 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 into account that country's 'time'

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. If you're visiting Mexico, a 1pm meeting means anywhere between 1pm and 3pm -- in that country, a meeting start time is a general indication of when people should arrive.

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 bleeding 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 offputting (the dishwater coffee in America springs to mind, as do the cooked baby birds still in the egg in Asian countries...) or the country has glaring and widely reported social or governmental problems, never, ever 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 grooming that helps 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 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 that you strongly personally disagree with, it's a good discipline to learn to mask your disagreement, 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 dreadful 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 sensititivies around them well) include religion, money and salary -- but in other countries these are frequently discussed.

#9 Be excruciatingly 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 commentate critically on a country's culture or cuisine in Twitter 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 home base

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 immeasureable 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.

11 Mar 2011

Total posts 1

 I always think of  "The people back home" as my family members. Thanks for the eye-opener in tip #10. 

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2548

Yes, #10 is a good tip... I like to bring back little boxes of chocolates, or pick up some fragrance or cosmetics for female colleagues, especially in the US, where prices for cosmetics can be so much cheaper than Australia!

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