In some countries, being late to a business meeting is a surefire way to blow a deal. In others, dressing casually, showing up empty-handed or cracking a joke can be corporate suicide.

For Canadian companies looking to expand internationally, it’s vital to brush up on the culture, customs and etiquette of doing business in all target markets.

Located in offices around the world, Export Development Canada’s chief representatives know firsthand the impact cultural diversity has on business. We asked four to share their insights

Nigel Selig, India, based in Mumbai


When you first land in India, if you’ve never been there before, the scale of the place, the contrast, it’s just intense in so many ways. The smells, sounds, sights—there’s things that you just don’t see in Canada. For many Canadian companies, it’s shocking when they first arrive. When you go to India, you need to prepare as much as you can to break into the market. But again, nothing can fully prepare you if you’ve never been there before.

One of the main benefits in India from a cultural perspective is that the English language is common in business. In Mumbai or Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, you can have business conversations, like you would in Ottawa, Toronto or New York City. In that context, it’s quite easy. But Indians tend to bargain hard and they don’t always say what they mean in meetings. You’ll get a lot of yeses when they actually mean no, or a lot of maybes when they actually mean no. That can sometimes lead Canadians on from a trade perspective, thinking that they’re closer to a deal than they really are. Indians tend to be tough bargainers, as well, and they can be shrewd business people. So, for many Canadians, they’re not quite used to dealing with such an aggressive environment that’s not always transparent.

But the consumer base in India is so large that it’s really of interest to many Canadians and offers many opportunities.

Owais Ahmed, United Arab Emirates, based in Dubai


For Canadian companies interested in coming to the UAE, it’s key that they understand the culture of the region. They also need to understand that this is going to be a long play. The market is highly competitive with competition from Europe and from Asia, which brings in its own challenges.

But it’s also a nation that hosts the largest number of expats. Out of a population of 9.5 million, between 88% to 90% are expats. They bring in their own language, their own culture, their own ethics.

There are 25,000 Canadians living in the UAE, about 15,000 in Dubai and about 10,000 in Abu Dhabi. It’s a culturally diverse place. It offers freedom of expression and freedom of movement to a certain extent. It’s a country that offers connections to the rest of the world, as well. It’s now a lifestyle destination: You work and live in the UAE and explore what all the regions have to offer.

Klaus Houben, Southeast Asia, based in Singapore


The culture is very different in Southeast Asia. Singapore is really business-minded. That’s where all the banks and legal firms are located. If someone is interested in EDC, you call them right away—not next month—and make arrangements to have a coffee—tomorrow. In Indonesia, you really need patience. For example, you can agree on a meeting, schedule it for 10 a.m., but then wait for 45 minutes in the lobby. That’s why you need patience.

Malaysia is similar to Singapore: Business-minded, while others are relationship-driven. To build relationships, you must be there on the ground day by day, forming bonds.

In Vietnam, language is a challenge. Business is conducted mainly in Vietnamese. You need to have a local partner or somebody from the embassy translating. 

Jean-Bernard Ruggieri, Africa, based in Johannesburg


The cultural differences are extreme in different parts of Africa. Some people are laid-back, while others are very aggressive in business. Each market is extremely different, and you have to be prepared. This is why you need EDC, trade commissioners and local partners to explain what to do or what not to do.

In different African countries, people are used to dealing with international companies. There are a lot of companies going over there—Europeans, Americans, Chinese, Indian, Turkish, and Canadians, of course. So they know how to deal with foreigners, they adapt to it, but it’s always good to showcase that you understand the practices, you understand the habits, and you’re respectful of the habits, too. Try to do some homework before you go into these markets.

For more information, check out our latest Country Risk Quarterly.