The Strangest Business Customs from Around the World

By Michael Jones (michael.jones@tsiglobalconsulting.com)

The world of American business is a comfortably familiar extension of life in America in general, but to many others, dealing with American companies can seem like a veritable minefield of potential missteps waiting to happen. I make this note at the beginning of this article because, when addressing the following topic, I want to make it clear that “strange” business customs are a two-way street, and that America, like any other country, has its fair share. With that said, some of these strange business customs from around the world will come as a shock to many other Americans as to how outlandish they may seem. International business people, take note! These are some of the unique situations that you may find yourself in with your foreign partners.

The first of the strange business customs that we will look at in this article comes from many parts of Asia, but specifically the Arab world, and, even more specifically, the United Arab Emirates. Picture this situation: you are attending a meeting with one of your clients in the UAE when suddenly, it becomes time to pass around documents for your partners to review. All appears to be going fine until you realize that everyone else in the room has started staring at you, their distaste apparent in their faces. What did you do wrong? Indeed in this case, it was a very subtle faux pas. Many of you may already be aware of the left-hand taboo; the idea that, in many western and southern Asian countries, the left hand is seen as “unclean”, and doing certain tasks, such as eating, will earn you a strange look. However, in the UAE, this taboo extends to any sort of professional activity – in this case passing documents – and can be taken as a grave insult. While, as a foreigner, you will likely be given a pass the first time, this mistake can be very embarrassing and can color your partner’s impression of you. When in the UAE, always be conscious of which hand you are using, especially when in a business setting!

The second strange business custom that I found also comes from the Middle East; call it cheating to put it here, but this one genuinely surprised me when I read about it. In most of the rest of the world, refreshments such as tea or coffee will generally be offered to foreign partners when everyone sits down to discuss business. Most of the time, these drinks are little more than presentation – usually the pitchers in the center of the long table go untouched as the participants have more important things to worry about. However, the situation is very different in most Middle Eastern countries. These countries have a long tradition of showing hospitality to strangers, and upon your arrival at a meeting, you will likely be personally served a beverage. Should you not begin sipping your drink immediately, you may find yourself getting strange looks from your host- this is because, in much of the Middle East, not drinking a beverage that is served to you is considered an insult! Even if you are not partial to the drink being served, it is better to politely sip your tea than risk injury to you or your company’s image. Be sure to finish your cup; tea is taken very seriously there.

The last strange business custom comes to us from Finland. Despite being a western country, business norms here can be very different than what you might expect in Western Europe, and these differences are exemplified by where many Finns feel comfortable doing business. While in many other countries, business is usually conducted in meeting rooms at a company’s headquarters, with small deviations that may include business dinners at restaurants, it is not uncommon in Finland for foreign business partners to to be asked to join management in one of this country’s famous saunas. While a bathhouse may not seem like the most appropriate place in the world for Americans to do business, never fear; in Finland it is a sign that your Finnish counterparts think that business is going well. However, don’t get too comfortable! Remember, you will still be discussing business here, not necessarily relaxing.

While these business customs may have developed in isolation, our world today is a global one, and to be successful abroad, you will need to expect to deal with these sorts of strange customs. Simply doing a little research beforehand will go a long way in creating lasting relationships with your foreign partners, and keep business flowing in the future. If you have any specific questions about unique customs for countries where you would like to do business, give TSI Global Consulting a call at 210-757-0618 for a consultation.

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