Latest "International Etiquette" Posts

Global Business Etiquette Tips – Part Two

June 11, 2013

Global Etiquette TipsIn the first part of our global etiquette tips series, we talked about the highly publicized cultural faux pas made by Microsoft tycoon, Bill Gates. His one-handed shake “shook up” the Korean culture.

Even if you’re a seasoned traveler – or a billionaire – the most subtle of misunderstandings in cultural differences can cause a stir. Differences in things as simple as office etiquette and opinions on the correct level of business formality can cause tensions.

When doing business globally, it’s important to remember that the expressions we use in the Western world may mean something entirely different in another country. Did you know, for example, that when the Japanese use the expression “sitting near the window,” they are referring to employees the company is retiring?

Here are some other global business etiquette and customs to consider:

In the Middle East, the right hand is the only hand used for eating as the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and is considered unclean. Shaking hands or handing an item to someone with one’s left hand is considered an insult.

When in Greece, Turkey or Bulgaria, note that shaking your head to indicate a negative response means the opposite!

In Japan, it’s best to avoid wrapping gifts in red or white as the as the color is associated with funerals and weddings. In China, red is considered lucky, so a good choice for gift wrapping, but skip the white paper as white is used in funeral and connotes death.

Also note the following dining customs when doing business in Asia:

Don’t rest your chopsticks vertically in your rice bowl. Stowing chopsticks in this way is considered impolite. The sight of two upright chopsticks in a bowl is a harbinger of death as it’s reminiscent of the incense sticks that the Chinese traditionally burn in veneration of loved ones.

If you’re dining with a group of people, a good rule of thumb is to order dishes equivalent to the number of people in your party, plus one. Makes sense as you want to ensure you have enough food.  But if you’re in China, and the number of people in your group is an even number, this formula will put you at an odd number of dishes—which is a ‘no-no’ in the country. An odd number of dishes symbolizes death.

Exploring the world, whether for business or for pleasure, is such a wonderful way to be exposed to new and exciting cultures. Before you pack your bags, make an effort to learn a little about the culture and customs of the people you’re visiting. They will value you all the more for your efforts, and you’ll avoid Bill Gates moment!

Would love to hear about your travels. Share with us in the comments below!



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Posted by Margaret in International Etiquette

Global Business Etiquette Tips – Part One

May 2, 2013

Global Etiquette TipsBill Gates found himself the topic of conversation last week—and it had nothing to do with technology. Tongues were wagging and heads were shaking in South Korea when Bill Gates greeted President Park Geun-hye with a one-hand shake, while his other hand was in his pocket.

Gates probably didn’t realize it, but a one-hand shake in Korean culture is done only when the other party is a good friend, of the same or younger age. In formal situations, greeting someone in a formal situation with a one-hand shake, with your other hand tucked into your pants pocket, is considered rude and disrespectful. The handshake, along with his open jacket, was way too casual and sparked a firestorm of controversy.

If you’re doing business around the world, you’re likely to make a cultural faux pas. Example: Did you know that in Brazil, your briefcase or bag should never be placed on the ground? When at a business meeting in Brazil, hang your bag on the chair or a hook.

Global business continues to expand—and it’s up to you to do your homework and put your best international foot forward when visiting another country for business. Having an awareness, and sensitivity, to their unique culture is extremely important and can affect the outcome of business communication. One small misstep, such as addressing an individual incorrectly, or not observing the rules of gift giving or timing, can be costly.

Here are some other global business etiquette and customs to consider:

In Great Britain, if someone taps his or her nose, it’s a signal that something is to be kept confidential. So keep a look out for that!

When meeting for business in China, Czech Republic, Bolivia or Japan, be sure to bring along a gift.

Speaking of gift giving, in the Chinese culture, certain gifts are associated with death and should never be given. These include: clocks, handkerchiefs, straw sandals and a stork or a crane.

If you’re dining out in Japan and China, you are not expected to leave a tip. Leaving a tip can be construed as offensive in these countries as it implies that the employee is undervalued by their employer. (Here’s a handy guide for tipping etiquette around the world.)

A few other things to note when traveling abroad: In India, cows are considered sacred, so refrain from ordering beef when attending a business dinner. In Saudi Arabia, it’s considered a popular gesture of friendship between men to hold hands while walking. Also of note, when dining in Islamic countries, it is inappropriate to eat with your left hand. Women visiting or doing business in Iran should always cover their arms, legs and hair.

When it comes to cultural etiquette, the first step in bridging the gap is awareness. Next week we’ll share 10 more global business etiquette tips that will help you navigate business with confidence no matter where you are in the world!

photo credit: Judy Vandervelden



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Posted by Margaret in International Etiquette

When in The Netherlands, Do What the Dutch Do!

May 4, 2011

I’m back in Canada now, after spending 3 (wonderful) weeks in The Netherlands. I didn’t get to take as many pictures as I would like, but this picture of me eating the herring I had just purchased from a street vendor got me thinking about how unique each culture is when it comes to specific etiquette “rules.”

Margaret eating a herring in The Netherlands

The Dutch, for example, take punctuality for business meetings very seriously and expect you do the same. If you’re going to be late for a business meeting while in The Netherlands, I suggest you call ahead with an explanation as to why you’re delayed. And if you have to reschedule, don’t be disappointed if it takes you weeks to arrange another meeting. The Dutch lead busy lives and have full agendas.

In The Netherlands, food doesn’t play the major role in hospitality, in comparison to other cultures. It’s not considered essential to serve a meal to a guest as a way to make them feel welcome. If you are invited for a meal, be sure to take a small portion of food to begin with. If a second portion is offered, it’s polite to accept.

Keep your hands on the table at all times – never on your lap during a meal. But, like your mother probably told you when you were a kid, “Keep your elbows off the table.”

It’s proper etiquette in The Netherlands to use a knife and fork to eat all foods, including pizza, sandwiches, and fruit. But then, that brings me back to the picture of me eating the herring with my hands, now doesn’t it?

There are street vendors in the squares and along the bridges at the canals, and in most towns selling herring. It’s quite the thing in The Netherlands. Wherever you find groups of people congregating, you can be sure there is a fish wagon nearby.

The raw herring is deboned by skilled fish handlers. The skin and tail is removed and the fish is served with raw onions on a paper plate. The Dutch way to eat the fish is to pick it up by the tail, tilt your head back and let the fish slide into your mouth. So, that’s what I did!

I love exploring what other cultures have to offer. Being open to our cultural differences, and embracing their customs is a great way to learn more about each other. And eating raw herring on a street (sprinkled with onion, of course) is the way to do in the Netherlands!

You know what they say…”When in The Netherlands…”

Have you experienced a cultural tradition you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it! Share in the comments below!

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Posted by Margaret in International Etiquette and tagged , , , , , , , ,

How to Host a Japanese Tea Ceremony

January 21, 2011

“The tea ceremony requires years of training and practice… yet the whole of this art, as to its detail, signifies no more than the making and serving of a cup of tea. The supremely important matter is that the act be performed in the most perfect, most polite, most graceful, most charming manner possible”.

~Lafcadio Hearn

I love to travel.  I love to see new places and meet new people — and experience their culture. And even though I’ve never been to Japan, I’m fascinated by their culture. And one of the things I’ve really enjoyed taking part in (a few times!) is The Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Here’s a bit about the ceremony—or should I say, ceremonies—to perk your interest. (Yes, that was a tea-ism…and corny, I know, but had to do it.)

The Scoop

One of Japan’s most honored customs, the Japanese Tea Ceremony is a traditional ritual, influenced by Zen Buddhism, in which powdered green tea, or matcha, is prepared by a skilled practitioner and served to a small group of guests in a tranquil setting.

Japanese tea ceremony
The host draws the boiling water from the pot.


Throughout the year there are various kinds of ceremonies–each one with specific names according to the time of day, the occasion of the tea ceremony, or the season in which the ceremony is held. No matter when, or where the ceremony is held, this common thread remains: the tea ceremony involves the preparation and serving of tea to a guest or guests.

Each tea ceremony has a host or hostess who will customarily wear a kimono. The ceremonies may be held either inside and outside and can last from one to five hours, depending on the type of ceremony.

If the tea is going to be served in a separate teahouse, the guests will wait outside until they are summoned. When invited inside, guests will remove their shoes and enter the teahouse through a small door, where they will proceed to the “tokonoma,” or the alcove.

A simple meal, called a “kaiseki,” may be served, followed by sake. When the meal is finished, the guests usually leave the area where the tea ceremony is being held until the host or hostess calls them back once more. It’s at that time that the tea ceremony truly begins.

Next, in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, the instruments – used to make the tea – are cleaned. Each utensil—including the tea bowl (chawan), whisk (chasen,) and tea scoop (chashku)—is ritually cleaned in front of the guests in very precise ways. This process is a time where guests remain silent, observing the process.

The Japanese tea is much more than “serving tea,” it’s about being present in the moment. The quiet rituals within the ceremony lend to the overall experience of slowing down time. It’s all very peaceful.

Once the instruments are cleaned, the host will make the tea – with a measured amount of green tea powder, whisking it with hot water. The host will bow to the guest in attendance who is the most honourable, who will drink from the bowl first and then return the bow to the host.

When the guest of honour (the first guest) passes the bowl to the next guest, he must turn the bowl so that when it is presented the second guest’s lips will not touch the same place on the bowl as the first guest.

After all the guests have had tea, the host will clean the utensils. As part of the tradition, the guest of honour will request that the host allow the guests to examine the utensils. Each guest will admire each item, treating them as though they were invaluable treasures. Then, the host will collect all the utensils and the guests will exit the teahouse. The host will bow from the door …signaling the end of the tea ceremony.

A Japanese Tea Ceremony, to me, is an event far removed from my afternoon Pot-O-Red-Rose. It is delightful, peaceful…meaningful. Perhaps we could incorporate some of these traditions within our own culture? Modified slightly to fit our Western way of life?

What do you think? In a world so intent on getting as much done in a 24-hour period as we can, can you see yourself setting aside 4 hours for a reflective time of quiet and green tea?

Bonus! Etiquette Tip: When seating guests in a Japanese-style room, the correct etiquette is to seat the most important guest with his or her back facing the tokonoma. This is because of modesty; the host should not be seen to show off the contents of the tokonoma to the guest, and thus it is necessary not to point the guest towards the tokonoma.

And now the answers to Tea Trivia!

Last week i posted these trivia questions for readers, and thought it only fair to share the answers!

  1. The Boston Tea Party
  2. Earl Grey.
  3. 180 degrees F or 82.
  4. Low tea..because it was served on low tables, such as coffee table
  5. The leaves are pan fried.
  6. See above!
  7. Darjeeling tea, grown in India.

How many did you get right?

images: Amy Otoko

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