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The body language clinic: International etiquette


Continuing our series on body language, resident expert Peter Clayton takes the community on a european tour, periodically stopping off to give us some essential do's and don'ts of etiquette.

It is quite common now for countries to run courses in inter-cultural skills to enable better working relationships with foreign business visitors. Needless to say, other countries assume that we are going through the same process and learning more about the countries we visit on business.

I have had a number of conversations recently with foreign business friends who have been disappointed by the lack of cultural research carried out by visitors prior to meetings. I have known them all for many years and at one time they thought it was funny and never took offence.

So there is clearly a need for us all to brush up on our foreign etiquette.

Besides describing meeting and greeting, this article will hopefully provide you with other details of behaviour you might encounter when travelling on business. It also offers clues about behaviour that is likely to cause offence.

NB This is the first of three articles giving brief details of etiquette and body language in different continents.


Because Europe has such a wide range of cultures, acceptable behaviour varies greatly between countries.  Southern Europeans generally are thought to be more open and expressive than their more northern counterparts.


Like many Northern European Countries the Danish are more formal and stand further away when talking to visitors. Handshakes are mostly firm and short. If you are greeting a couple, shake hands with the woman first. Politeness is important. Eye contact is approximately 75% of the time. Women go first through doors and down stairs. Turning your back on people is impolite, for example, if you need to pass people in order to reach your seat, face them and say thank you. At formal dinners each man will be presented with a card with the name of the female dining partner who will be sitting on his right. He should escort her to the table. Toasting is popular. The correct form is to look around the group or toast one person, take a small sip and then make eye contact again.


Men, women and children will shake hands formally when introduced. Open displays of emotion are rare.  Making and keeping direct eye contact is important in conversation. Standing with your arms folded will be interpreted as arrogance. If you want to cross your legs, do so at the knees not your ankles. Never eat with your fingers, not even fruit. It is considered bad manners to leave food on a plate, so only take small portions that you know you will be able to finish.


Swedes are serious, undemonstrative people and, perhaps more than most, tend to regard loud, extrovert behaviour as shallow. Handshakes are firm and brief, with one or two pumps only.  No other form of body contact takes place. Maintain eye contact when talking as it shows you are interested in what they're saying. Crossing your arms is not seen as defensive in Sweden but rather shows that you are listening. When talking to someone, keep your trunk face-on, angling yourself even slightly away from them could be taken as lack of interest. Swedes have a special dislike of being interrupted when talking and of moving on to another subject before it is dealt with fully.

Czech Republic

You may find, especially at formal meetings, that everyone shakes hands when they arrive and leave. Otherwise, Czechs and Slovaks do not indulge in physical contact in public. When you have finished your meal, put your knife and fork together parallel at one side of the plate.  Leaving your knife and fork criss-crossed on the plate will be taken to mean that you are just pausing. Formal toasting is quite common at business meals. The host will take the lead and you should respond when you are invited.


Handshakes are quick, single, frequent up-and-down pumps. In general, a man should wait for a woman to offer her hand first. Even with people they know well the French don't kiss on the cheek – they just touch cheeks and kiss air. They don't smile at strangers. Business cards are often exchanged. If you give a card to a superior, you may not necessarily get one in return. At business meetings, don't remove your jacket before the most senior person. Although the French gesture often, in work situations body language and behaviour tend to be restrained.


Germans are non-tactile compared with other countries in Europe. Men give a firm handshake perhaps with just one pump. Women and children will also shake hands, but less forcefully than men. When meeting a group, shake hands with each person, and the same when leaving. Business cards are exchanged as a matter of routine. Germans don't routinely say "Please" and "Thank you".  This isn't rude.



Like many Southern European countries, you may find that they stand much closer to you than you may expect. Avoid stepping away as it could be interpreted as being rude or uninterested. Eye contact is usually more than 90% and is warm and friendly. Italy is the most tactile nation in Europe. Even businessmen who have met only a couple of times will offer a lingering handshake, perhaps clasping the other man’s elbow but this is not an appropriate gesture between men and women.


As with other Latin countries, firm, warm handshakes are the norm. The Portuguese are not very demonstrative, except in meeting close friends, when men might slap each other’s backs and women might embrace.


Strong direct eye contact and a good firm handshake may be followed, for male friends, by a Russian bear hug, perhaps with quick kisses to alternate cheeks. Passing in front of people with your back to them, for instance at the theatre or in a crowd, is taboo. Russians don't smile at strangers, especially not in public. 



Handshakes are warm and friendly, and perhaps a man will pat someone he knows on the back or shoulder.  Friendly eye contact is important, although women need to be careful that it doesn't get confused with signalling interest. Keeping your hands in your pockets during a conversation will be considered rude by members of the older generation. When arriving at a table in a restaurant or at someone's home, men usually make a point of waiting for all the women to sit down before they do so themselves.


Swiss customs naturally divide into French, German and Italian forms. Swiss-German greetings are short, firm and without any other touching, whereas the French and Italian versions involve embraces and cheek-kissing. Have plenty of business cards as they will get used. The Swiss especially appreciate an upright stance and good posture. In a restaurant, strangers might take any seats that happen to be empty at your table.    

When writing this article I became increasingly aware that I could have written a great deal more, with comments on negotiating, seating plans, the appropriate percentage of eye contact and so on and so on. I decided, because of the length of the article, to cut it down and try to give a brief overview of the countries I'm familiar with. As I mentioned at the beginning, if there are TZ members who can add to the final article I will add them and compile the series into a download.

Enjoy your break and I wish all of you a good 2011.
You can read part 2 of the series by clicking here

Countries and areas in the next articles:
  • Middle East and the Arab world
  • Africa
  • Australasia
  • The Indian Subcontinent
  • China and the Far East
  • Central and South America
  • North America

Peter Clayton is a leading body language expert, speaker and trainer as well as a consultant for the BBC and ITV. He writes for a wide range of national papers and magazines and is a specialist consultant to other speakers, leading businesses, celebrities and politicians. For more information, visit his website:

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Peter Clayton

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