Peak Translations

Colours, customs and business etiquette – and their importance in building relationships

Long-lasting business relationships are clearly built on trust and understanding. When dealing with a supplier or customer in a foreign market, that trust is built by not only respecting their business and the people in it but the wider culture of the country in question.

Peak Translations has been helping UK companies to enter new markets across the globe for some 40 years. Here we share some of our advice on doing business with countries where cultural differences can literally make or break a deal.

Business etiquette

China presents a text-book example of the importance of understanding business etiquette in foreign markets. There is a huge emphasis on respect for your host and waiting for him/her to take the lead in entering or leaving the room or ordering a meal first. Hierarchy too is important, with the most senior colleagues – in terms of both age and position in the company – being particularly revered.

Chinese business is measured in every way; even down to the exchange of business cards. In the Western world, business cards are often relegated quickly to a jacket pocket. In China, business card exchange is almost a ceremony in itself; with cards given and received with both hands and fully studied. The same applies to gift exchange.

Hierarchy in Germany is equally as formal. German suppliers and customers will expect to be addressed as Herr or Frau along with their surname. Even your email signature and business card should reflect your name in the same way, together with your university degree attainment.

Of course, the German love of structure and order plays an important part. Punctuality is held in high regard by Germans, as are facts. The British way may be to build rapport through a personal connection and perhaps a touch of self-deprecating humour. Germans are much more likely to bond at a professional level with contacts whose conversation or presentation is driven by detail.

In the example of India, even the use of the word ‘No’ can be considered poor etiquette. Avoiding any offence to customers in this way can, however, create an unfortunate consequence where an Indian supplier agrees to a deadline they simply cannot meet. In such instances, it may help to build in a longer lead time.

Caution needs to be applied when doing business in Bulgaria for a nod of the head actually means No!


Particularly in Chinese culture, colours carry great symbolism. Black or white may seem safe but they are associated with corruption and death respectively. Even yellow, considered as a positive colour in the Western world, is associated with pornography when referring to communications material!

Perhaps one of the most high-profile examples of the importance of colour comes in the form of UPS. One of the world’s largest packaging companies, its corporate uniform has been one of the most recognisable since its inception in the 1920s. The uniform, however, stood out for all the wrong reasons when the company entered the German market in the 1970s. Its resemblance to the colour of the uniforms of the Brown shirts – the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party – was certainly regrettable.


Religious customs are perhaps the hardest to navigate. For a UK host, taking an Indian customer for a Sunday roast might seem a quintessentially British pastime but certainly not if beef is on the menu!

Religious holidays also impact how you do business and should be avoided for particular product launches (e.g. a food product during the fasting period of Ramadan). Even where a religion is shared, there can be subtle differences. In the UK we may well exchange Christmas gifts on Christmas Day but in other countries, such as Spain, this ritual is likely to fall on Twelfth Night, marking the arrival of the Three Kings.

Similarly, giving a time-piece gift is a long-standing tradition in the UK workplace. However in Chinese, the expression ‘giving a clock’ sounds exactly like the Chinese words for ‘attending a funeral ritual’. The gift of a clock or indeed a watch is therefore seen to be bad luck.

Across the East China Sea in Japan, it is the vertical placing of chopsticks in a bowl which is said to bring bad luck. It is a taboo that stems from Japanese funerals where a bowl of rice is left with two chopsticks vertically placed in its centre…

For more advice on the country you’re working with, contact a member of the Peak Translations team on E: or T: 01663 732 074.

Why not take a look at the other blogs in our Market Entry series, Technology and its role in reaching overseas marketsProtection – how to safeguard your brand and product in overseas territories and Brands – Why they matter when entering a foreign market.




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