What’s the Custom? 

People are people, right? Of course they are, but you will find that when you travel or work outside the United States, just about every country you’ll visit has its own particular set of etiquette and social norms. Whether written or unwritten, these rules may very well be commonplace to the citizens in each country, but to you—the visitor—they may seem daunting and perhaps even a little bit scary.

Whether you’re doing business in person, long distance, or by e-mail, you can avoid quite a bit of costly embarrassment by understanding what to do when you are in the presence of a foreigner, especially if some kind of business is involved.

Do Your Homework Before You Go
If you’re going to travel and work anywhere outside the U.S. border, you’ll want to spend some time researching local customs and mores before you go.

One of the best repositories of information is the site Executive Planet, which is well organized into categories, including setting and keeping appointments, business dress, conversation, how to address someone by first name or title, gift giving, negotiation skills, entertaining, and public conduct.

To illustrate a few examples, here are some snippets from this site that you may not have known:

  • Business Attire in Mexico: Dark, conservative suits and ties are the norm for most men in Mexican business culture. Junior execs in some industries, notably technology, may dress more casually or less expensively, but visitors will seldom err if they adopt conservative ways. Ensure your shirts are well-pressed and your shoes are polished to a high gloss. Standard office attire for women includes dresses, skirted suits, or skirts and blouses. In Mexico, femininity is strongly encouraged in women's dress. Women business travelers will want to bring hosiery and high heels. They will also appreciate a light coat for evening wear.
  • Gift Giving in Canada: Unlike other countries such as India and Japan, gift giving does not play a big role in Canadian business culture. Of course, Christmas and/or New Year’s cards are appropriate, particularly as a thank-you for the other party’s business during the previous year. Gifts are not expected for casual social events. In fact, most Canadians would consider them unusual. That said, if you were invited to a home for dinner, it would not be inappropriate to bring a token gift of flowers, chocolates, or a bottle of wine. Generally, if you are giving a gift, any product relating to your home country is a good choice.
  • Making Appointments in France: The best time to schedule meetings is 11:00 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. It’s alright to arrive 10 minutes after the scheduled time, but not later. Allow plenty of time, after the meeting; meetings tend to last a lot longer than scheduled.
  • Conversation in Columbia: The customary business greeting begins with handshake and a polite greeting before and after the meeting. Colombians pay attention to body language and are very good listeners. They are verbose by nature and are known to become emotional during discussions where feelings take precedence. Humor and anecdotes are welcome in business discussions.

Quick Tips

  • Bring a guidebook, of course, but try to read it before you board your flight. There’s nothing that screams “tourist!” like being caught reading a guidebook on the flight or just after landing.
  • Ask your employer for assistance. If you’re on a short-term assignment or something longer term, it’s possible you’re not the first employee to travel abroad. Your company or firm may already have something in writing or provide access to information you’ll need to know what to do with regard to local customs and social etiquette.
  • Use your judgment. As a CPA, you’re known for making informed decisions. All of us pick up a great deal of information through pop culture. For example, if you’re a female working in a Muslim country, you know through television and movies that you must conform to certain clothing customs. If you are unsure what to do—again, do your research.

The key is preparation, no matter where you’re going. If you do not have to time to do your research, ask your co-workers or peers/friends once you arrive at your destination. There’s nothing truly wrong with being transparent and admitting you need help.


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