Dressing to Impress, Not Offend, While Abroad
Every culture has norms when it comes to what people should wear at work. Recognizing them can mean the difference between success and failure, both personally and professionally.
As the saying goes, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – but we often do when it comes to clothing. In fact, many people will develop a strong first impression about your professionalism, business acumen, and even your intelligence, based on what you wear.
In this article, we’ll discuss why it is so important to be aware of these cultural expectations, and consider some of the main clothing faux pas to avoid when working around the world.
The Importance of Cultural Awareness
You may wonder why you need to learn cross-cultural etiquette if you don’t currently work with people from different countries. But it’s becoming more important as organizations increasingly do their business globally.
Whether you manage a global team, have ethnically diverse team members, or work with clients, suppliers or partners from different countries, you’re almost certain to come into contact with people from other cultures. And it’s important to treat each person with respect, so that you don’t damage your business relationships.
When you understand how people do business in other countries, you’re more likely to make a positive impression. You’ll increase the chances of doors opening to new opportunities and friendships, and, in the process, you and your organization are more likely to achieve your goals.
Dress Etiquette Around the World
Many cultures have specific expectations when it comes to business attire. Below, we discuss a number of things you should consider before you go abroad (although you should also do your own research into the country and the organization you’re visiting beforehand).
Formal Business Wear
Conservative business wear remains the norm in many countries, such as Argentina, Egypt and Brazil, where suits are typically worn by men and women (although, in some places, women tend to wear skirts rather than pantsuits).
And, in continental European countries like Italy and Spain, the quality and taste of your formal business wear can create a strong first impression. Exceptional tailoring and custom-made suits and shirts (instead of off-the-rack clothing) are particularly likely to impress.
If you dress too casually in certain cultures, such as the United Arab Emirates, your hosts may consider you impolite. So, if you’re unsure about what to wear, your safest bet is to dress conservatively. Men should opt for suits, and women should wear suits, blouses and suit jackets, and skirts or dresses (with hemlines at an appropriate height).
In general, stay away from unusual prints and bright colors, and choose darker, more subdued hues like gray, navy blue, brown, or black.
The best way to decide what to wear is to dress similarly to your co-workers in the country. If you have any questions, it’s always best to ask politely than to choose unwisely and regret it later.
Business casual clothing – where people wear shirts and pants, or dresses and skirts, instead of suits and ties – is common in some cultures. For example, Israeli dress is comparatively casual: you’ll see fewer jackets and ties, and more button-down shirts and khaki pants.
Company culture also tends to influence what people wear at work. In professions such as banking, the norm remains conservative wherever you are. However, other industries – especially creative ones – are more relaxed. For example, in the United Kingdom and United States, start-ups are often more casual, and only senior executives will dress in suits.
The opposite of this is true in the Netherlands, where the egalitarian culture means that those in positions of power in certain industries typically make an effort to “fit in” by dressing like everyone else.
Some organizations in countries such as South Africa allow people to leave their jackets and ties at home in the summer. However, even in Australia, where the temperature regularly soars, it is typically not appropriate to wear sandals at a work or business function. In Spain, it is not unusual for men and women to wear dark suits all year round, even in the height of summer!
The amount of skin that women show is a contentious issue in some cultures so, if in doubt, err on the side of caution. For example, in India, Morocco and China, women should avoid tight-fitting clothes, and they should make sure that skirts cover their knees and that their necklines are high.
In Saudi Arabia, women should only show skin on their face, hands and feet. All women (foreign and local) must also wear a black cloak, called an abaya, and a headscarf in public.
Jewelry and Accessories
In some countries, such as China, people wear jewelry and other accessories sparingly. Expensive jewelry is even frowned upon or considered too showy in countries like Sweden, where tastes are typically more reserved.
In India, however, women often accessorize with scarves and earrings. And cuff-links and watches are considered a sign of wealth and status in countries like Italy and Spain.
While it is often safer to wear darker colors in more conservative countries, you can be bolder in others. If you go to Hawaii, for instance, be sure to pack an aloha shirt. Sometimes called Hawaiian shirts, they have short sleeves, collars and bright, festive prints. Try to wear one to a business meeting on the mainland U.S., however, and you’d be better off going to a bar than to the office!
You should be aware that, in some cultures, different colors symbolize different things. For example, red represents luck in China and, in Thailand, many people wear yellow shirts as an informal homage to their king, especially on Mondays – the day of his birth. With this in mind, you might choose to wear these colors during your visit to make a favorable impression.
If you’re going to a country where you are expected to dress conservatively, it goes without saying that you should wear smart, polished shoes. Flats are typically the shoe of choice for women in China and Japan, whereas heels are the norm in most Western cultures.
It is polite to remove your shoes before entering a home in China, Japan, Korea, Russia, Thailand, the Pacific Islands, and Hawaii. This maintains cleanliness but, most importantly, it symbolizes that you’re leaving the outside world where it belongs. In Japan, your host might present you with slippers when you remove your shoes. A different pair might await you if you have to visit the bathroom!
And, in the Arab world, no matter who you are, you should never show the soles of your shoes to others; it is considered highly disrespectful.
When you arrive, look to see whether your hosts and other guests have left their shoes at the door. If they have, you should do the same.
How to Avoid Cultural Faux Pas
The best way to avoid clothing and other culture-related faux pas is to learn as much as you can about the organization and country’s etiquette, values and communication styles before you visit.
Read the article on Cross Cultural Business Etiquette to acquaint yourself with some important ins and outs of global business. Our Book Insight on “Do I Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands?” can also shed valuable light on cultural values and expectations; and see our Managing Around the World series in our Team Management section to familiarize yourself with specific countries.
Finally, you can discover what distinguishes one place from another with our article on the Seven Dimensions of Culture. Our article on Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions can also help improve your understanding of a country’s attitudes and norms.
If you travel or work abroad, lead a global team, or do business with clients or suppliers from other countries, be sensitive to cultural differences. Many people will develop a strong first impression about your professionalism, business acumen, and even your intelligence from what you wear.
Spend time researching the country’s culture, and the organization you’re visiting, before you travel. This will help you avoid causing offense and damaging your business prospects. You will build stronger relationships, which may lead to more lucrative opportunities for you and your organization.