In the ever-connected world of global business, understanding and respecting cultural differences is essential for building successful relationships and fostering effective communication. One of the first impressions you make when meeting someone face-to-face or even virtually is your appearance. How you dress can be an important representation of you and your company.
This first look, however, can be dramatically different across the globe. The way people dress for business varies significantly from one corner of the world to another, reflecting cultural norms, traditions, and even climate. Our ongoing series Consider it Culture looks at a variety of differences on a micro level to help prepare you for doing business internationally. We’ve already covered business card rituals and what’s in a handshake, and with this edition, we take a look at your look.
Here, we get a sample of things to remember as you prepare for international meetings. Always do due diligence to research each location to put your best foot forward.
Knowing what to wear can be overwhelming, but considering the culture when you travel is going to be your best bet to get it right. Transport yourself to an international gathering of businesspeople like a food show or conference. Here, you can see the gambit of business dress as you scan a room. French and Italians lean towards simple but well-tailored designer suits, while a group of Indian businesspeople may have vibrant sarees for the women and men will be in tailored suits with bright, colorful accents. Looking towards a group of Japanese, you’ll notice a more modest color palette with understated ties and accessories. Then there is the group of tech entrepreneurs strolling in with blazers, denim pants and athletic shoes. Each style fits their social and business norms in their own setting, but together you can see something is clearly different. When you are dressing to impress, a style more aligned with your customers can go a long way to building understanding and expressing values.
Countries like Japan, South Korea, and China focus on professionalism, formality, and uniformity. Very simple, classic dark suits, white shirts, and leather shoes for men are the norm, and women dress very modestly with high necklines, long skirt lengths, and closed-toed shoes. Stick with darker colors like black, charcoal, and dark navy for your attire, even socks. Meticulous attention to detail is emphasized; be sure to bring this into your dress throughout your visit to appear crisp, clean, and well put together.
Moving to Southeast Asia, a blend of Western business attire and cultural heritage merge in these countries. While in India, you will still see well-fitting suits, but the colors become more vibrant, and patterns are much more common. Their cultural heritage is emphasized and celebrated, and women, yet still very modest, wear brightly colored sarees. Additionally, the type of business may play a strong role in how Westernized or casual the industry is. Across Singapore and Thailand, you will see a relaxed style, with a mix of traditional and Western-style dress. Here, climate plays a role in the dress, and you will see lightweight and breathable fabrics are preferable.
In the Middle East, countries like Egypt and the UAE, conservative and traditional dress is common in business settings. For men visiting Egypt, wearing traditional Western Business dress is appropriate in dark colors with a white shirt and a tasteful, understated tie. Visitors should not wear visible jewelry or the traditional business dress of Egypt, as both can be seen as offensive. Facial hair is commonly grown and groomed, and it is considered a sign of maturity and masculinity in many Middle Eastern cultures. Women should be incredibly conservative with their dress, covering as much skin as possible. Full-length sleeves and skirts past the knees are recommended, along with close-toed shoes. Clothing that is form-fitting, low-cut, or tight should be avoided. Be sure to check any local requirements for dress to be sure you will not run into issues. Keep the weather in mind while packing for a visit to the Middle East, as the weather can be quite harsh with sandstorms, extreme heat, and humidity. Several lightweight layers are a good idea.
More common in urban areas like the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, you will see Western-style business suits, shirts, ties, and formal shoes for people working in international business environments, finance, or multinational corporations..
When visiting African countries for business, dress can vary widely. Often, Westernized business attire is accepted in larger cities. Suits, dress shirts, blouses, ties, and formal shoes are appropriate. Pack according to the season and location you are visiting, which may be hot, or it may be rainy and cool. Modesty in most attire is a good place to start, leaving behind any flashy or revealing attire. Maintaining neatness and a well-groomed appearance will go a long way to impress your hosts.
Across Europe, business attire can vary significantly from country to country. However, there is a general trend toward formal and stylish dressing. Westernized business suites are more recognizable in Europe as men typically adorn dark business suits, dress shirts, ties, and leather shoes. Women, similarly, will find blazers, blouses, dress suits, and dress pants to be common items. A crisp, clean appearance is favored, but adding pops of color through scarves and other accessories can add style.
In countries like France and Italy, style is paramount. Business professionals often opt for well-tailored suits, designer clothing, and attention to fashion trends, with an emphasis on looking polished and sophisticated, reflecting a culture that places a premium on aesthetics.
Climate will also play a role in business meetings. Research the time of year and expectations for business dress in each country, as they can vary seasonally. In cold climates, such as Northern Europe, heavy coats, scarves, and warm clothing are integral to business attire during the winter months, as are lightweight garments throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Understanding these cultural differences in business dress is not merely a matter of fashion; it’s a key component of effective cross-cultural communication and relationship-building. Dressing appropriately demonstrates respect for local customs and professionalism. It can also influence how others perceive you and the level of trust and rapport you can build. There is even more to business dress than this article can pack in, so when it is your time to pack, be sure to take advantage of the NDTO’s member benefit of AtoZ World Trade for all the country-specific details you need to know for your next business meeting.