How to negotiate the international hospitality minefield – business etiquette tips part two

Business dining, corporate gifts and entertainment are customary ways of creating goodwill with a client. They help build relationships and enhance a company’s image.

But international hospitality can be a minefield. Different nations have their own customs. Some don’t expect a gift, while others are insulted if you don’t bring one. Many countries consider expensive hospitality as a form of bribery. It’s easy to be embarrassed by failing to observe a cultural tradition or to risk your company’s reputation by inadvertently breaking the law. 

Our second global etiquette guide helps you navigate these waters safely.

An invitation to a business dinner

The best way to observe cultural etiquette at a business dinner is to listen more than you talk and take your cues from your host and local associates. Many people don’t like talking business at dinner, for example, so avoid it unless colleagues bring it into the conversation.

Research each country before travelling. You may be introduced to very different ways of eating than you’re used to, from sitting on the floor in Japan to using your hands to eat tacos in Mexico. Customs are different too – in many Muslim and Buddhist countries, guests must not eat before older people are served.

Do’s and don’ts

  • Japan: At a formal dinner on tatami mats, people sit with their bottoms on their heels. When the host indicates, women can move their legs to one side and men can cross their legs.
  • Sri Lanka: Don’t let the serving spoon or fork touch your plate when meals are served from a central platter – this is an important Hindu tradition.
  • Somalia: In common with southern India and the Middle East, Somalis always eat food with the right hand – never the left, which is considered unclean.
  • Morocco: Pace yourself! It’s likely your convivial hosts will urge you to take seconds and thirds.

Receiving and giving a business gift

Corporate gifts are an accepted symbol of appreciation, but they’re also a headache for head office because they can conflict with business ethics or laws.

In the UK, the Bribery Act (2010) includes rules on the value of gifts, their frequency and the timing of them, and whether they could influence a business decision. Small gifts are considered acceptable.

The problem is that an excessive gift in one country is modest in another, while some cultures consider gifts more important than others. This conflict has led many multinational corporations to issue rules on what to do if refusing a gift would cause offence. Revisit your company’s guidelines before leaving home.

Do’s and don’ts

  • United States: The US puts a monetary limit on gifts to make decisions easier. You can give gifts up to a value of US $25.
  • Japan: Don’t be surprised if your gift is refused once or twice before it’s accepted. It’s considered polite to do so.
  • Hong Kong: Avoid giving gifts wrapped in blue or white paper – both colours signal mourning.
  • Italy: Don’t present a gift printed with your company logo unless you want to be seen as having bad taste.

Is that entertainment?

Entertainment is also important in developing business relationships, but difficulties can arise. A lavish banquet, commonly held in the Middle East and China for example, could break UK rules about ‘reasonable value’.

Conventional hospitality is usually accepted as long as it’s like-for-like. So, if a client offers to pay for dinner one time, you reciprocate by paying later with a meal of the same value.

The principle of reciprocity also applies to other forms of entertainment such as sporting fixtures and arts events. If a paid trip to a cricket match in Jamaica might be perceived as an attempt to seek favour, it’s best to politely refuse unless it would offend to do so and damage your company’s reputation.

Do’s and don’ts

  • Egypt: If you’re entertaining a group of Muslim clients, choose a restaurant that offers halal food and that doesn’t serve alcohol.
  • South Africa: South Africans love to entertain and will often pay for events such as golf days – it’s considered polite to offer to pay or to reciprocate.
  • South Korea: Koreans enjoy karaoke and guests are expected to swallow their fears and sing for the honour of their country to maintain cordial relations.
  • Poland: Dress smartly if you’re invited to a restaurant and remember that any agreements made at the table will be considered a contract. Poles start eating when the host says "Smacznego" (bon appetit).

Learning a few words in the language of the country you’re visiting never goes amiss. Just don’t follow the example of one British executive who responded with his own name when a German associate welcomed him with "Alles gut?" (I hope you’re well). He thought her name was Alice.