Your Guide to Business Protocol in Six Key Export Markets

As featured in Dynamic Export eMagazine March 2017.

Etiquette is something that is more or less understood in general business. But when we expand business internationally we must learn to understand and adapt to different cultural behaviours and protocols. Consequently, the definition of protocol has expanded in recent years to include various other areas besides diplomacy.

For exporters, many of their most important markets are those with a long historical and economical timeline with deeply ingrained values and traditions. These cultural differences are important to understand when doing business.  Having protocol knowledge can greatly influence the foreign counterparts and can lead to positive, successful partnerships.  This is a basic guide to business protocols in six key export markets:

1. Japan

Contemporary greetings in Japan business circles no longer require business people to how as deeply or as often as their Japanese counterparts – what is important is that respect and humility are displayed which can be done by slightly nodding your head as you shake hands. Expressing thanks for their time or referencing a previous meeting at this point is also respectful protocol. Given the language barrier. It is highly advisable to enlist the services of a skilled interpreter.

There is also a slower pace to doing business in Japan which should not be seen as cause for frustration but as an opportunity to increase in this business culture. In essence, a measured pace is required to foster strong business relationships and business people who first enter into cross-cultural ties will need to demonstrate patience.

A deal will generally take time to come to fruition. In Japan, getting to know the people with whom partnerships will be formed is not only a priority but signals respect for the individual.

Japan is as much about following proper protocols and understanding hierarchy as it is about respect and the fundamental requirement by the Japanese to know they can build lasting relationships with business associates they can trust. When preparing for business in Japan, businesses need to apply a long-term view of strategic objectives because, for the Japanese business is not about the individual deal but about the longer-term benefits which that partnership can potentially produce. Prepare your strategy for the long-haul.

2. Singapore

As an important financial hub in Asia, Singapore is a melting pot of cultures; one whose population is made up of almost 50 percent of people from outside its borders. With a significant portion of this percentage consisting of people from countries within Asia, business styles will most likely skew towards Asian nuances. Within this context, however, it is important to know which part of Asia will be the representative culture at your meetings. Checking the name origin of your counterparts will provide more clues.

Singaporean business people consider themselves global citizen; they are well travelled and have a lot of experience working with foreigner. As such they have a flexible style which the readily adapt in order to establish strong associations.

Business cards are very important to Singaporeans and exchanging them is an expected protocol. The exchange takes form in the same manner as seen in other Asian countries (held with two hands, writing facing the receiver), however whereas in most other countries it would be wise to have the reverse of your business card appear in the local language in Singapore that will not be necessary be English is the language used for all business dealings.

3. United Kingdom

Probably the most obvious differences between Australian and British business dealings is the level of formality. Despite the many younger UK organisations that have recently impressed upon global business, the British still maintain a formal approach to business.

These characteristic manifests itself in every aspect of business from the humble email (almost always “Dear” and very rarely “Hi”), a very formal and sophisticated style of business attire to timing where punctuality is a must. The British are masters of soft diplomacy and take business etiquette seriously and in this regard. Knowing who to and how to extend due in this regard, knowing who to and how to extend due courtesy is important.

Keep in mind that “British” refers to people from England are known as “English”. “Irish” refers to people from the Republic of Ireland which is not part of UK. Understanding these differences will help to avoid any likely offense.

4. New Zealand

In an Australian international Business Survey conducted in 2016, exporters ranked New Zealand amongst the top three markets in terms of ease of doing business. Whilst Australians and New Zealanders share a sense of solidarity there exist a number of cultural differences which mainly pertain to New Zealand’s indigenous peoples, the Maori.

This is an important factor when doing business in New Zealand as the Maori culture is celebrated and embedded in every aspect of life in New Zealand to extent that most non-Maori New Zealander’s, speak some Maori or at the very least use many words intertwined with the English language.

When doing business in New Zealand with the Maori business community, you may find yourself playing a part or attending a Powhiri – a formal welcome ceremony for business dealing which observes strict protocols. One of these protocols includes the hongi, a greeting which involves foreheads coming together and the tips of the nose touching. These formal business gatherings take place on a Marea which is the central traditional building located in the community’s grounds where important events are presided upon. In general, doing business with the Maori business community may call for stricter observance or protocol and ceremony.

5. United States

One of Australia’s closest trading partners – one would think we know everything there is to know about our American friends. Because the US is such a large country, it is no surprise that there may be different regional customs. It is no surprise that there may be different regional customs. The practices of its businesspeople can vary greatly from state to state but restaurant entertaining is common throughout.

What many may not be aware is that there is such a things as American and European style dining etiquette which differs dramatically. In Australia, we apply the European style of dining etiquette (knife on the right hand, fork on the left hand throughout the meal) whilst the American style of eating starts the same but the knife is rested, flat, on the top of the plate at an angle, and the fork swapped to the right hand to transfer food from plate to mouth. Then the fork is swapped back again to the left hand, knife picked up from plate and another portion cut, knife rested, fork swapped back and motions are repeated. This method is called American zig-zag.

6. China

Not only the biggest export market for Australia but a giant in many other respects, China’s history is long and rich and its culture deeply rooted in centers-old beliefs and traditions. With the recently celebrated Chinese New Year it is fitting to highlight one important custom.

As food is a central feature of the New Year’s Eve celebrations, as a guest, be sure that when you are finished with your meal to leave some food on your plate. Leaving an empty plate will be an insult to your host, signaling they have not served enough food and therefore causing a loss of face. This is important to note also for it applies not just during the New Year’s Eve banquet but to any other business dinners where you are the guest. In general, when invited to any social event, it would be offensive to decline.

If you happen to find yourself in China to welcome in the Year of the Rooster, to be on the right side of ‘luck’, you might also want to pay attention to some of the many superstitions that are not only intriguing but which color aspects of daily and business life. This might include numbers (the number 8 for example signifies prosperity because the word for ‘eight’ is pronounced in a similar way to the word for prosperity), colours (red is a symbolic colour for happiness or joy and is considered good luck but forbidden at funerals where white is predominantly the colour of mourning), symbols (giving a clock as a gift augurs the end of a partnership or pointed implements such as a letter opener which would be seen as intent to sever a relationship).

As a general rule, it is advisable to research the region where business will be conducted. Understand the logistics of the meeting venue, the background of the people who will be in attendance at any meeting and the corporate environment of the organisation that will be hosting you and your colleagues.

Above all, don’t forget business cards and learn how to properly exchange them. Even in the digital age, the traditional business card is an important symbol that is used in an equally important ritual of introductions amongst business people, especially in many of Australia’s top export markets.

You will need to have plenty at your disposal and then some more. Be sure to have plenty at your disposal and then some more. Be sure to have one side translated in the relevant market language. This detail is highly regarded and seen as a sign of respect for the local culture.