Business and Travel Etiquette in Europe

By Jonathan Spira on 23 November 2010
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While it’s hard to make generalizations about Europe and Europeans, etiquette and general rules of comportment are sometimes quite different from what is customary in the United States.  From Andorra to Zürich, it’s important to understand how people interact, conduct business, and socialize with one another.

To make things easy for the business traveler, we’ve prepared a brief guide.

Language

If nothing else, learn how to say “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” as well as greetings for good morning and good day before visiting a country.

A quick guide to these phrases in French, German, Italian, and Spanish may be found as an appendix to this article.

Local variations abound.  Germans and Austrians tend to greet a room, i.e. no one in particular, when they enter a shop or doctor’s waiting room, for example , saying Guten Tag or Grüß Gott (the latter being more common in Austria and Bavaria).  See the appendix for appropriate greetings based on time of day.

In most European countries, upon entering a shop, it is customary to greet the proprietor (see appendix for time-of-day greetings).

Most businesspeople in Europe speak some English but there are tremendous differences between American and U.K. English and the English employed by those who learnt English as a second language.  It is possible that someone you are speaking to will not understand what you are saying but will not admit this for fear of losing face.

If you are giving a presentation in a non-English speaking country, make sure you have materials available in both languages. Keep in mind that there are many countries with multiple national languages (Belgium and Switzerland come to mind).

Dress

Business casual is largely an American invention.  In most countries, men should wear a dark suit and tie or jacket and tie.  Women should wear pantsuits or formal skirts.  Casual dress is seen as a casual attitude towards business.

It is considered rude not to remove one’s shoes when entering someone’s home in some countries but not in others. This is especially true in Scandinavia.  Check locally.

Dress more formally than you might at home when going a concert, the opera, or a show.

In the summer, shorts are typically reserved for casual outdoor activities such as hiking and would not be worn to go shopping, for example.

Titles

Even in some of the largest companies in the U.S., everyone from the CEO down is on a first-name basis.  In Europe, addressing someone by his first name is presumptuous, unless one is invited to do so.  Courtesy titles (Monsieur, Señor, Madame, Herr Professor, or Herr Doktor) and last names are the norm.

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