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European Cultural Differences in Business

Updated on July 25, 2012
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Having lived in Europe (Portugal to be exact) for the past two years, I've become increasingly fascinated with the many cultural differences that exist between country in Europe. If you are looking to do business in Europe, I can't stress enough the importance of cultural awareness in order to be successful. Europe isn't just one country with a uniform culture - although each country is geographically close to each other, each one has its own distinct culture. Remember that age-old saying "When in Rome, do as the Romans do", it is wise to take that advise and familiarize yourself with some basics of the country where you intend to do business.

With this article, I intend to highlight the differences between business cultures in the following countries: France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. For each country, I will specify how people greet one another, the corporate culture, how to dress, what they think about gifts, and some general tips for each specific country.

The French flag
The French flag | Source

Doing Business in France

Below are some things you should keep in mind if you will be traveling to France on business.

  • Greetings:
    When meeting people at a business setting, you should shake hands with everyone in the room when you arrive. Also shake hands with everyone when you're saying goodbye.
    Women don't initiate handshakes - as a man, you must initiate a handshake with a woman and as a woman, you need to wait for the man to stretch out his hand.
    In more social setting, people kiss each other on both cheeks (rather than just one as is done in the US).

  • Corporate Culture:
    Punctuality is a must so be on time!
    Be very professional as businesspeople in France are very formal and conservative.
    Hierarchy is strictly followed and bosses tend to be authoritative.
    Give your business card to everyone you meet and make sure your title is there as well as your credentials.
    Although French businesspeople get down to business rather quickly, making actual decisions takes longer.
    Don't schedule any meetings in August or two weeks prior to or after Christmas and Easter as the French takes vacation during that time.

  • Business attire:
    Dress conservatively in neutral colors and portray a polished look.
    Men should wear conservative suits and use a tie; Women can wear a skirt suit, a pant suit, or a conservative dress. Keep your blazer on at all times in a professional setting.

  • Gifts:
    If you're invited to someone's home, bring a small nicely wrapped gift for the hostess and give it to her upon arrival. Possible gifts should be luxury flowers or candy.

  • Other helpful tips:
    Don't talk about your personal life since it's considered inappropriate at a business setting.
    Do not address anyone by their first name. Only use a person's title and last name.

The German flag
The German flag | Source

Business Culture in Germany

Below are some things you should keep in mind if you will be traveling to Germany on business.

  • Greetings:
    Like in France, when meeting people at a business setting, you should shake hands with everyone in the room when you arrive. Also shake hands with everyone when you're saying goodbye.
    Introduce yourself by your name and last name. Do not use your title.

  • Corporate Culture:
    In Germany, it's important to arrive not a minute late for anything.
    First meetings are meant to establish a face to face relationship and gain trust. Decisions are made only after executives thoroughly analyze all the facts.
    German companies have a strict vertical hierarchy. Power is held by a small number of people at the top so it's like a pyramid.
    Everything is done "by the book" and everything gets documented.

  • Business attire:
    Dress conservatively in neutral colors and portray a polished look.
    Men should wear conservative suits and use a tie; Women can wear a skirt suit, a pant suit, or a conservative dress. Keep your blazer on at all times in a professional setting.

  • Gifts:
    Gifts are not exchanged at business meetings
    If you're invited to someone's home, bring a small gift for the hostess and give it to her upon arrival. Possible gifts to consider are books, hard liquor or something America-made.

  • Other helpful tips:
    Business is not discussed over lunch so don't initiate the conversation. The conversation should only happen if your German counterpart starts it.
    A thumbs up is actually the sign for "one" in Germany.

The Irish flag
The Irish flag | Source

Business Etiquette in Ireland

Below are some things you should keep in mind if you will be traveling to Ireland on business.

  • Greetings:
    When meeting people at a business setting, you should shake hands with everyone in the room when you arrive and establish eye contact. Also shake hands with everyone when you're saying goodbye.
    Introduce yourself by your name and last name. Do not use your title.

  • Corporate Culture:
    The Irish aren't very strict with punctuality and may arrive late for meetings however as a foreigner, you need to arrive on time.
    A lot of business is conducted at golf courses!

  • Business attire:
    Dress conservatively and don't forget a raincoat!
    Men should wear suits and use a tie; Women can wear a skirt suit, a pant suit, or a conservative dress but pant suits are not very common on Irish women.

  • Gifts:
    Gifts are not exchanged at business meetings
    If you're invited to someone's home, bring a small gift for the hostess and give it to her upon arrival. Possible gifts to consider are flowers, chocolates, or a bottle of wine.

  • Other helpful tips:
    The 'Old Boys Club' mentality persists.

The Italian flag
The Italian flag | Source

Business Culture of Italy

Below are some things you should keep in mind if you will be traveling to Italy on business.

  • Greetings:
    When meeting people at a business setting, you should shake hands with everyone in the room when you arrive and when you're saying goodbye.
    If you're a male, don't initiate a handshake with a male but wait for her to extend her hand fist.
    Friends greet by kissing each other on both cheeks.
  • Corporate Culture:
    Punctuality is taken seriously at business meetings. If you're running late, call and explain your tardiness.
    Provide your business card when you first meet someone at a business setting. When you're given a business card, look at it and after 'careful observation', put it away in a safe place like your briefcase or purse.
    Negotiations usually take some time and it's important to establish a personal relationship before entering any talks.
    Meetings tend to be informal and unstructured.
    Important decisions aren't made at meetings but before them in private.

  • Business attire:
    Dress elegantly and conservatively.
    Men should wear suits and use a tie; Women can wear a skirt suit, a pant suit, or a conservative dress 'unfeminine' clothing is uncommon.

  • Gifts:
    It's not common to exchange gifts at business meetings but in case your host gives you a gift, have a nicely-wrapped gift such as expensive liquor or desk accessories handy. If you're given a gift, open it right away in front of the giver.
    If you're invited to someone's home, bring a small gift for the hostess and give it to her upon arrival. Possible gifts to consider are flowers, chocolates, or sweets.

  • Other helpful tips:
    Flirting is pretty common in Italy and being a woman may give a woman an advantage when doing business.
    Always maintain eye contact when speaking to an Italian.

The Dutch flag
The Dutch flag | Source

Doing Business in the Netherlands

Below are some things you should keep in mind if you will be traveling to the Netherlands on business.

  • Greetings:
    When meeting people at a business setting, you should shake hands with everyone in the room when you arrive and when you're saying goodbye.

  • Corporate Culture:
    Punctuality is taken seriously at business meetings. If you're running late, call and explain your tardiness.
    The Dutch get down to business very quickly and negotiations happen swiftly.
    People are very straightforward in the Netherlands.
    Consensus is imperative in this country.

  • Business attire:
    Dress conservatively and not flashy.
    Men should wear suits and use a tie; Women can wear a skirt suit, a pant suit, or a conservative dress. It's okay to take off your blazer at the office.

  • Gifts:
    It's not common to exchange gifts and may only be possible after a personal relationship has been established.
    If you're invited to someone's home, bring a small gift for the hostess and give it to her upon arrival. Possible gifts to consider are flowers, chocolates, or art objects.

  • Other helpful tips:
    Keep in mind that Holland is a region of the Netherlands so don't refer to the whole of Netherlands as Holland.

The Portuguese flag
The Portuguese flag | Source

Doing Business in Portugal

  • Greetings:
    When meeting people at a business setting, you should shake hands with everyone in the room when you arrive and when you're saying goodbye.
    In friendly settings, men hug or pat each other on the back and women kiss both cheeks with other women and with men.
  • Corporate Culture:
    Punctuality is taken not taken very seriously at business meetings. You can expect your Portuguese counterparts to be late but don't be late yourself.
    English is widely spoken.

  • Business attire:
    Dress conservatively.
    Men should wear suits and use a tie; Women can wear a skirt suit, a pant suit, or a conservative dress.

  • Gifts:
    It's not common to exchange gifts at business settings.
    If you're invited to someone's home, bring a small gift for the hostess and give it to her upon arrival. Possible gifts to consider are expensive flowers or expensive chocolate.

  • Other helpful tips:
    Happy hours are not common in Portugal.

The Spanish flag
The Spanish flag | Source

Doing Business in Spain

  • Greetings:
    When meeting people at a business setting, you should shake hands with everyone in the room when you arrive and when you're saying goodbye.
    In friendly settings, men hug or pat each other on the back and women kiss both cheeks with other women and with men.
  • Corporate Culture:
    Punctuality isn't taken too seriously but you're expected to arrive on time. If you're running late, call and explain that you're running late.
    Both Spanish and English is spoken in large companies but you should check ahead of time if you'll need an interpreter.

  • Business attire:
    Dress conservatively and elegantly
    Men should wear suits and use a tie; Women usually wear dresses or a blouse with a work skirt.
    Shoes are very important so make sure yours are polished.

  • Gifts:
    It's not common to exchange gifts. If you do give a gift, make it something very small.
    If you're invited to someone's home, bring a small gift for the hostess and give it to her upon arrival. Possible gifts to consider are flowers or some sweets.

  • Other helpful tips:
    It isn't considered rude to interrupt when speaking, so if you're interrupted, don't get offended.
    The Spaniards take their time so patience is key.

The UK flag
The UK flag | Source

Business Culture in the UK

  • Greetings:
    When meeting people at a business setting, you should shake hands (lightly) with everyone in the room when you arrive and when you're saying goodbye.
    Refer to people by their last name and their title.
  • Corporate Culture:
    Punctuality is taken seriously. Be on time.
  • The Brits get down to business very soon after a meeting begins.
  • Meetings usually have objectives.
  • The 'Old Boys Club' mentality still exists in old school businesses.

  • Business attire:
    Men should wear suits and use a tie; Women can wear a skirt suit, a pant suit, or a conservative dress.
    Blazers are considered weekend wear and are not worn to work.

  • Gifts:
    It's not common to exchange gifts at business settings.
    If you're invited to someone's home, bring a small gift for the hostess and give it to her upon arrival. Possible gifts to consider are flowers, chocolates, wine, or champagne.

  • Other helpful tips:
    Keep in mind that the UK refers to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
    Don't discuss the private life of the Royal Family.
    The Brits' are very private.

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    • LLambie profile image

      Lauren 3 years ago from UK

      I really enjoyed reading this. As a Brit, I lived in New York for a while, so I definitely agree with you that cultural differences are very noticeable - even though we share a language! I found New Yorkers to be very kind, generous but very blunt!

      You are right in saying that typically British people are very private, although that has changed in recent years and some Brits are most definitely the opposite.

      When I'm in business meetings, I would typically refer to someone by their first name, unless I'm pitching to a new customer or it is someone very senior within the organisation - then I would probably still use title and last name.

      Great article.

    • malapapachan profile image

      Mala Papachan 2 years ago from Matlock Bath, England

      Ha ha, I like it! However, business is done very differently all over the United Kingdom and you may just be referring to London. There is a reason why London is still the main financial centre in the world, and this maybe due to their history, please see wikipedia link. Old school is gone and only exists in certain pockets within England. One important point missing, lots of business deals are done in pubs (aka public houses) and wine bars!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_London

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