The Etiquette of Doing Business Abroad


How to navigate cultural complexities and the importance of pressing pause

The decision to branch out, look further afield than your own coastline and search for business abroad can be incredibly rewarding, not to mention open up a whole world of new revenue streams. But before jumping in head first, it’s important to pause and consider the ways in which your offering may be perceived differently, or how you can adapt your approach to better suit your audience. Doing your homework thoroughly and speaking to different people from the market before taking the plunge is critical to your success.

As most of you will know by now, after sourcing a client in The Netherlands, Jess and I decided to pack up our young business and move to Amsterdam for six months last year, to better understand the culture and work out whether the Dutch way of life differed much from London. We came away with a whole bucket load of learnings, but wanted to share a few top tips on how you can navigate cultural complexities and make the most of your international expansion plans.


1. Try new things, but be honest about what you don’t know: It goes without saying that a great way to bond with your new potential clients is by sharing some food, drinks and traditions from their culture. Doing some swotting up before you go is a good way to get ahead of the curve but being humble and acknowledging the things you don’t know is also a very valuable approach. By being eager to learn, to embrace new things rather than bulldoze in with your briefly Wikipedia’d ‘key phrases’ and facts, you can show you are invested in creating a long-lasting relationship.

2. Be patient: Thanks to the million pieces of technology we use every day, business in 2018 moves at a blistering pace, especially in London. This can be a great asset as you stay in better contact with clients and colleagues than ever before, and race through your to-do list. However, when doing business overseas, you need to take extra time to earn trust, and learn the customs of others with whom you are working. By pausing to listen and reflect on your initial conversations you can plan your moves more carefully, and avoid making sloppy errors or misjudgements that could end up costing you a contract.

3. Embrace the differences: There is a phenomenon known as the ‘Dutch Directness’ that we’d heard of before moving over to Amsterdam, but had no idea how prevalent it was in practise. It’s so easy to make judgements about people in comparison to your own ‘norm’, which could lead to being unfairly critical rather than taking people at face value. We soon figured out that the Dutch approach was definitely more direct than we were used to in our overly apologetic British world. Rather than be deterred by the bluntness, we tried to take a step back and look at the language objectively. By adjusting our own style slightly to complement the people we were speaking to, we found that the conversations could actually be more productive, more efficient and we’d get to the point a hell of a lot quicker!  

4. Take their traditions back: What struck me most about living and working in the Netherlands is that being a strong woman is admired and respected. I attended some incredible talks/workshops run by incredibly inspirational, powerful Dutch women who were unapologetically themselves and it left me feeling far more confident to embrace that side of myself than I have ever felt in London. Unfortunately, in a UK work environment it's often difficult to navigate being assertive without being labelled as 'bossy' or 'loud'. I feel as though this power shift is totally different in the Netherlands, where powerful, commanding women are accepted rather than being seen as abrasive. I spoke to both men and women working within different businesses out there and the determined leadership was seen as a valuable asset. I have definitely tried to bring this attitude with me and incorporate it more into my day-to-day working life, it’s comforting to know that just because something is normal for where you live or usually do business… it’s not the only way.

So there you have it! I think the main thing comes back to treating every new opportunity as exactly that, don’t be afraid to open yourself up to new challenges … always be prepared to learn something new, and it might just be the most rewarding thing you' ever do!

We decided to go for it … and never looked back!

We decided to go for it … and never looked back!