It’s human nature to assume that people everywhere share certain basic ideas about what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t. But no. Depending on where in the world you go, it’s easy to offend people without realizing it, simply by acting—or interpreting other people’s actions—the same way you would at home.
That’s awkward enough in social situations, but it can be fatal to a business deal. “Even the most minor transgressions of etiquette can cause offense,” notes Mina Wu, a content manager at Expedia who put together the travel site’s new online etiquette handbook, with tips on what to keep in mind when doing business in 18 countries. Wu adds that, fairly or not, your overseas counterparts may view everything you do (or neglect to do) as a reflection on your whole company, or even your entire country. But, hey, no pressure.
One intriguing difference among cultures: People’s attitudes toward time. If meetings where you work tend to start late, and then careen off the agenda altogether, you should fit right in among Brazilians. “Time is considered to be something out of a person’s control in Brazil,” the guide says. “Do not expect to adhere to a strict schedule.” In South Africa, bring something good to read, since meetings routinely start up to two hours later than agreed. The protocol in Mexico, meanwhile, seems to value your host’s time more than your own. You’re required to show up on time, but “expect your Mexican counterpart to arrive up to 30 minutes late”—and then, as likely as not, postpone the meeting to another day. If this happens, the guide advises, “don’t appear irritated.” Good luck with that.
By contrast, punctuality is an important sign of respect in the United Arab Emirates. (In the UAE, by the way, don’t try to reach anyone on Fridays, when the weekend will have already started. The work week there runs from Sunday through Thursday.) The most formal business manners, according to Expedia, apply in Japan, where “business cards are given and received with two hands and a slight bow.” Seniority counts, as “the most senior member of the group is always given the most respect.” Bring a small gift, “as a token of your esteem”, and present it to that person at the end of the encounter.
Germany runs a close second when it comes to formality, the guide says, with meetings that run like well-tuned BMWs: “Germans will always strictly adhere to meeting agendas, and meeting start and finish times.” If you’re accustomed when stateside to plunking yourself down in any random seat at a conference table, beware. The guide says that in Germany there is “rigid protocol to follow in meetings, so avoid sitting until invited and told where to sit.”
Then, skip any small talk and be ready to get right to the matter at hand. This is a long way from what’s expected in, say, the UAE, where non-business-related chitchat is “essential to building relationships.” Likewise in Turkey, you might wish you could cut to the chase—but don’t. “Discussions can be slow to develop,” the guide notes. “It is considered very rude to ask colleagues to get to the point.”
Sometimes, behavior that Yanks would see as impolite is perfectly kosher elsewhere. For instance, in Japan, if someone seems to have drifted off to Dreamland while you were talking, odds are they’re actually more alert than usual. Says the guide, “They aren’t dozing off! Some Japanese close their eyes when they want to listen intently.” Another example: In the U.S., interrupting someone who’s speaking is considered obnoxious. Not so in Brazil. “Expect to be interrupted while you are making a presentation,” the guide says. “Don’t take offense. It’s the norm.”
Suppose your overseas hosts invite you out to a restaurant, or even to one of their homes after work. Expedia’s guide gives some handy tips on etiquette there, too, with a welcome emphasis on details that matter. It’s pretty common knowledge, for instance, that one takes off one’s shoes when entering a Japanese home, and puts on slippers the host has placed there. But, to be completely correct, instead of just chucking your footwear down any old way, “leave your shoes pointing away from the doorway you are about to walk through.”
Expedia suggests that guests in German homes maintain, at least initially, a degree of formality similar to what prevails at the office. Americans’ habit of calling even people they hardly know by their first names is a bit too chummy here. “Address men with ‘Herr’ and women with ‘Frau’ or ‘Fraulein’,” the guide says. “When entering a room, be sure to shake hands with everyone individually—even the children.” As at work, punctuality matters: “Never arrive early. Germans appreciate arriving right on time, which signifies proper planning. If you’re early, take a walk around the block, or wait in the car!” Ja wohl.
Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at email@example.com.