I get the question almost every cultural awareness training: “Can you give me some Do’s & Don’ts of this particular country?” or “What about this or that Business Etiquette?Do's & Dont's in Culture

It’s a very valid question and an obvious one from someone working in an international environment. We want simple and short answers and solutions to the problems we face.

However… Do’s and Don’ts and Business Etiquette questions are really the most difficult one’s to answer.

Why are Do’s and Don’ts Difficult to Answer?

Do’s and Don’ts are very contextual, so is almost every business etiquette. Meaning that one particular Do will be very effective and acceptable in one situation (with the same “cultural players” present), while it can turn into a complete Don’t and unacceptable in another situation (with the same “cultural players” present). The same holds true for a Don’t turning into a Do when the context changes. So it works or does not work both ways.

An Example

Imagine the following setting: A European learns “how to do Business with Japanese” on a particular cultural awareness training. Amongst the things he/she learns is how to greet his/her Japanese counterpart in the traditional Japanese way and how to accept his business card. He/she learns that a deep respectful bow is the “Do” to do and accepting the Japanese business card the traditional Japanese way. He/she also learns how to present a business card “Japanese style“: presenting it in a way that it can be read immediately without flipping it around (yet another Do).

On the other side, “our” Japanese counterpart goes to a cultural awareness training on how to deal with Europeans. He learns that bowing is not the way to greet someone, but shaking hands is (in this case the European Do). In addition he is told that dealing with business cards is not a big thing in Europe, and that business cards function more as a piece of information for future reference and that they do not carry the same weight as they do in Japan.

They Meet

When our Japanese and European finally meet, simultaneously the Japanese sticks out his hand whilst the European bows forward. The result: the European gets a hand in his/her face while bowing. Nice… (creating yet another cultural problem: how to apologize!)


Of course this is an exaggerated example, but hopefully you understand what I mean with Do’s and Don’ts changing in different contexts and circumstances back and forth.

Within a Japanese context bowing is a Do. In a European context shaking hands is a Do. But since the context has changed (a mix of European and Japanese Do’s and Don’ts) it is not always clear what to Do or to Don’t.

My advice is to not always go with the Do’s and Don’ts that you might have learned from another culture, but to take a more adaptive approach. And if there are things you’re not sure about or do not understand, it never hurts to ask the other party if he/she can explain what is happening or what needs to be done within the given context.


An excellent book on this subject, that I can fully recommend is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands There are several specific “versions” of this book available. I suggest you browse around Amazon and take your pick!

Personal Space & Hygiene

Here it gets a bit tricky, because it could be interpreted as being too personal. So let’s keep it general.

  • Personal Space: Cultures that are relatively Individualistic, tend to “value” their personal space more than more collectivistic cultures.
  • Personal Hygiene: Cultures that are more Individualistic buy and use more deodorant and shampoo. You can interpret this as that Individualistic cultures are not comfortable with smelling each other’s body odors. Individualistic cultures also spend much more money on general hair care products, skin care products, and other personal hygiene related items.


If you per se must see some do’s and don’t and a business etiquette here and there, click here. It’s a large Infographic.

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