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Cultural mistakes to avoid on business travel

The purpose of every business trip is to get that deal done and get it done your way, but hey, did you stop and think why at your last business trip in Korea you were almost instantly not liked by your clients, is it a cultural bias or is it something you did?

My guess is – the latter. We, unintentionally send wrong messages to people by doing something as silly as blinking too much. In a world where first impressions and likeability can make a world of difference, you don’t wanna mess up by being ignorant about their culture – we are often so focused on telling our own business stories that we don’t pay attention to how we are doing it. Besides, this can be an advantage in the sense that doing your homework about your client’s culture can show that you respect them, and their feelings. A great way to build trust.

When we were meeting Italian customers for the first time, we thankfully did some research and found out that being super well dressed is important in Italy, and anything otherwise is considered to be a sign of disrespect. We were otherwise all set to attend those meeting in our usual startup-ish attire. The meetings did go well – all our customers had worn suits, and so did we.

Here is an example that will be difficult to forget:

An American oil rig supervisor in Indonesia shouted at an employee to take a boat to shore. Since there’s a no-one-berates-an-Indonesian-in-public norm, a mob of outraged workers chased the supervisor with axes. (source)

So, the next time you are off to a business trip, use your flying hours to research about the place, the culture, and the clients.

Here are a few tips and examples to get you started.:

  1. Take care of dinner etiquette and food culture.

Business travel will surely include going out to dinners and lunches with clients and business partners. Unfortunately for us, table manners and dinner culture vary from country to country and sometimes state to state.

  • In some countries like Greece and Italy, you cause offense by not eating enough. Turning down Vodka in Russia is almost criminal, well, almost.
  • While it may be common for you to discuss work and business over meals – in some places, especially in Asia, you are expected to not talk during the meals. Talking while eating can mean lack of appreciation for food.
  • In India, where food is consumed by hand, eating with the left hand is frowned upon.
  • In some cultures, putting your hands on the table is considered bad table manners and in others putting your hands on your lap is considered bad manners. (I know!)
  • In China and Japan, learn to use chopsticks well to save yourself from embarrassment and also using chopsticks to point and gesture can unintentionally imply a lot of things.
  1. Be conscious about your body language and hand gestures.

Body languages and hand gestures are an inherent part of our daily communication and speech style, and while speaking, your hands move of their own accord, right? Well, you might wanna work on that while you are on a business trip.

Here are some tips:

  • In Thailand, never touch anyone’s head, as they consider head as very sacred part of the body.
  • In the West, a handshake is used to mark the end of a successful negotiation, and in the Middle East, a handshake indicates the beginning of serious negotiations.
  • Pointing is considered rude in many cultures. If you have to point to something use your whole hand instead of fingers.
  • In Asia, crossing legs in front of elder people is considered rude – very rude!
  • Also, the a-ok gesture which we all think is kinda universal is considered again ‘very rude’ in brazil.

Here is a little bit more about gestures to avoid.

  1. Research about the dressing and colors.

Dressing is very important in business meetings; not only do you want to look great but you also want to respect the local culture while presenting yourself. This would be a great way show respect to the people you are meeting. It’s not that your clients or partners will examine your dress, and what colours you wear, but due to cultural beliefs, some feelings are triggered subconsciously. For example, in China, white colour is associated with death. This is why it is important to take care of such seemingly small details.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • In countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and some parts of India, exposing too much skin is frowned upon and people will feel uncomfortable around you.
  • In Malaysia, the color yellow is reserved for royalty and common folk are not supposed to wear it.
  • Being super well dressed is important in Italy, and anything otherwise is considered to be a sign of disrespect.
  • This is super important. Take care to never let the sole of your shoes touch anyone and if you do – apologize profusely. In some places, this is considered unsacred, and in others, it is just a rude thing to do.
  1. Give space

Hugs, pats on the back for a job well done, eye contact, less physical space between people can be considered friendly, or inappropriate, depending on the place.

  • Chinese and Indians are used to less space than the Americans. In US, UK, and other European countries – keeping a space of a hand’s width at least is considered a norm.
  • It best to avoid good-job pats and hugs when you are in another country.
  • In South American cultures, touching the arm and speaking is a very casual thing to do and it implies friendly and cordial feelings, but, in eastern countries, uncalled-for-touching is not appreciated.


Given that there are many cultures and cultures of cultures, these are just a few tips in the sea. You possibly can’t get everything right, but, like I said in the beginning, putting effort to show respect is good enough for most people.

Cultural mistakes don’t just apply to business executives but to organizations as a whole. Companies have made mistakes (some very funny mistakes) in the past that cost them a lot. In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated to Schweppes ‘Toilet’ Water (source) and you can imagine the repercussions.

So you see, paying attention to the culture is paramount, if you don’t want to embarrass yourself or others.

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