In an increasingly global economy, business travel is on the rise. But investors and entrepreneurs will need to bring more than just capital in order to close deals abroad. In emerging economies such as China, Mexico, and Brazil, observing national business customs can help you build relationships, grow your business, and get a leg up on the competition. Here’s what you need to know when doing business in some of the world’s emerging economies.
China’s very distinct culture can seem intimidating for first-time visitors. One of the most important things to keep in mind when doing business in China is the power of the first impression. It’s customary to be introduced through an intermediary that Chinese counterparts know and trust. A handshake is customary when being introduced, but know that they may last longer than Westerners are accustomed to and are not likely to be as forceful.
When exchanging business cards, the act of giving and receiving should be done with both hands, a signal that you value the interaction. Don’t pocket the business card; instead, place it on the table in front of you.
In Chinese business culture, tremendous value is placed on the relationships between people—known as guanxi— and meals are often seen as a way to bond with new associates. Unlike American power lunches, business is rarely discussed over meals in China. Instead, meals should be used as an opportunity for the parties to get to know each other. And don’t forget to sample every dish—it’s considered rude not to try everything.
Bonus tip: Remember: China is the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is the Republic of China.
Like China, introductions and first impressions are a critical component of Mexican business culture. The cold-calling culture of the U.S. is noticeably absent in Mexico. Instead, use your network to find an associate who can introduce you to Mexican business partners and vouch for your expertise.
Following an introduction, make an effort to be social with your new colleagues. If you’re typically reserved or introverted, be prepared to put in a little extra effort, as socializing is an integral part of business in Mexico. Learning the names of your new contacts’ family members and being able to talk about local sports or cultural interests will help you break the ice.
One bit of Mexican business culture may prove irksome to the visitors from the U.S. It is not uncommon for meetings to be canceled or postponed with little warning. When setting up meetings well in advance, make sure you follow up periodically to confirm. It’s perfectly acceptable to send an email saying that you’re looking forward to meeting them. In fact, some in Mexico regard business meetings with Americans as purely tentative until they are assured that the American visitors are actually present and in the country. Be persistent—but polite—in your follow-ups, even calling the night before.
Bonus tip: Do not make the okay gesture. It’s considered just as rude as giving the middle finger in the U.S.
Business is done a bit differently in Brazil. Brazilian professionals pride themselves on dressing well, so be prepared to invest in your wardrobe before meeting with Brazilian counterparts.
Meetings themselves are likely to be more informal than Americans are accustomed to, and timing and structure much more fluid. Being late and interrupting others are major faux pas in the U.S., but in Brazil, those actions aren’t generally considered rude. In fact, they’re seen as a testament to the relationships with business associates. Your associate is late to the meeting because she is making sure a client fully understands a complex proposal. Another associate interrupts not to argue with you, but to supplement your point. In fact, direct criticism during a meeting will often reflect negatively on the critic, rather than the person being criticized. When you do business with Brazilian partners, you are perhaps more important than the company you represent. Take time to cultivate this relationship, and don’t rush or appear impatient. Let your Brazilian counterparts bring up business first. Once that happens, they may take their time negotiating and spend a lot of time reviewing details. If you do not speak Portuguese, it’s wise to hire a translator, particularly one native to Brazil. Last but not least, always deliver big news face-to-face.
Bonus tip: If you come bearing gifts, avoid the color purple—even flowers. Purple is the color of mourning.
Speaking English is different from acting and thinking like an American. Business partners in India will likely speak fluent English, but it doesn’t mean building a relationship there will be smoother sailing than dealing with other cultures. If anything, the language and other similarities may lull companies into a false sense of familiarity, so it’s important to remain aware of cultural differences.
In India, handshake greetings are common, though not for women. Also common is the namaste greeting, where you bring your palms together at chest level and bow your head slightly. New acquaintances typically trade business cards, using their right hands for the exchange. Treat a card with respect; shoving it in your back pocket won’t go unnoticed. If you’re really looking to impress, have one side of your business card printed in Hindi.
By and large, Indian society is non-confrontational, and saying “no” is considered offensive and disrespectful. As a result, Indians have other, subtle ways of saying “no,” something helpful to keep in mind if you’re hearing non-committal terms such as “It’s possible” or “We can try.” Handle criticism with upmost delicacy. Like many cultures, cultivating personal relationships is key to building business relationships, and understanding these subtleties will go a long way.
Bonus Tip: Expressing an interest in cricket is great way to endear yourself to Indian colleagues. Think of how impressed you’d be if they asked you about the NFL.
Singapore is a melting pot of cultures not unlike North America. Do enough business in Singapore and you’ll meet native Malays as well as Chinese, Arab and Indian immigrants. As such, building business relationships can mean working through extra layers of difficulties, as different groups may bring social customs from their previous homelands to their new country.
In Singapore, different immigrant groups also have their own greetings , so tailor how you say hello to whomever you’re meeting with. Malay women generally do not shake hands; instead, greet them by placing your hand over your heart. Use the namaste greeting when meeting with Indian women. When meeting most men, a handshake will suffice, and it doesn’t have to be firm. Some more traditional Chinese residents may bow as a greeting, but won’t expect you to.
As in India, “no” is an unpleasant word in Singapore culture, and you should avoid using it, too. If that’s the appropriate response, saying “We’ll see” is preferred. Likewise, “yes” doesn’t always mean yes. You’ll be expected to read between the lines to understand what the speaker really means. If you’re still unsure what an answer means, ask the question again later. If you’re told, “We’ll see” twice, that may mean “no.” Saving and keeping face is important in Singapore, and much is done to keep relationships harmonious. Always be polite, professional, and patient; it will be difficult to recover face if you disrupt that harmony by being disagreeable.
Bonus Tip: Some colleagues in Singapore may be Arabic Muslims, and will avoid alcohol and pork.
International business etiquette may be tough to master, but a little effort goes a long way. It won’t just save you from embarrassment—it may be the deciding factor on the deal of a lifetime.