Does etiquette matter? Yes; arguably, more than ever. We’d go further, and suggest that it’s an essential building block for business at home and internationally.

Today, we conduct business across virtual borders. We set out our stalls in global shop windows. We have instant communication at our fingertips, and ten different ways to put our voice out into the world before breakfast. We have embraced social media where online utterances and bon mots have a life of their own – and a long one at that.

Still, as the saying goes, there’s nothing like being there. We still cross physical and cultural borders, and business is conducted as it always has been: in a room, with someone you want to persuade to buy your services. In which case, it pays – really pays – to bring etiquette into the room at the same time, especially in international business.

What is etiquette? The word itself has the patina of age, suggestive of times and customs we discarded at about the same time we left behind steam engines and penny farthings. Since the word comes to us from the court of 18th-century France, and means ‘prescribed behaviour’ it’s hardly surprising etiquette has an antique look to it. After all, we don’t really ‘do’ prescribed behaviour in the pacy, me-first 21st century. Do we?

Well, yes, we do. Etiquette, being one of life’s essentials that adapts itself to the customs of the times, no longer stands for a rigid and obscurely codified set of behaviours. Instead, it’s a guide to creating a business climate of trust and professionalism, where goodwill and relationships are carefully nurtured and built to stand the test of time. Looked at this way, time spent training in international business etiquette is a sound business investment.

We are all learning etiquette, all the time, and applying what we know from minute to minute of every business day. We absorb and observe the customs of the country where we live as easily as we learn to speak its language or know its geography. We know our own rules of etiquette so well that we rarely catch ourselves in the act of applying them.

That changes when we travel from the domestic business landscape to the international – wherever it may be. We don’t think twice about packing a map, honing our language skills, and researching hotel and travel options.  What we can’t do is pack the instant guide to etiquette; like our own, etiquette is governed by unwritten rules and social contracts.

A light-hearted quip to break the ice may work well in one part of the world and cause deep offence in another. Observing the niceties of giving a gift  or presenting a business card says more about you than the gift or business card ever can. The gear-change from formality to informality is a nuanced question of timing that varies hugely across borders. And the vocabulary and grammar of body language varies from country to country, so much so that a body language phrase book would be a real boon.

Unwritten as it is, good etiquette still speaks volumes. In our next post, we’ll be looking at how to master etiquette for international business with ten questions to ask yourself about the country you’re visiting, the rules of the road, and how to navigate your way through them.