Serious business

Etiquette tips for doing business in Sri Lanka

DESMOND SO, founder of the East-West Institute of Applied Etiquette, gives his tips on how to do business in Sri Lanka

business etiquette in Sri Lanka


Even though it is hot and humid in Sri Lanka, people tend to dress conservatively because of European influences and religion. For men, this means dark-coloured suits. For women, wear conservative shirts, blouses, suits and dresses that don’t reveal too much skin.

business etiquette in Sri Lanka


Many Sri Lankan women avoid physical contact with men who are non-relatives, so it is best to take your lead from your hosts. Titles are important in Sri Lankan business culture; if someone has a title, use it. Otherwise, defer to ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, or ‘Mr’ and ‘Ms’ followed by surname. Never call someone by first name unless given permission.

business etiquette in Sri Lanka


The first meeting is used to build relationships so don’t see it as a waste of time even if an entire meeting is spent talking about weather, your visit so far or your impressions of the country. You can score points by talking cricket intelligently. Sri Lankans are non-confrontational and do not like to say no; seek clarity without being pushy.

business etiquette in Sri Lanka

Business Cards

Give and receive business cards with both hands, and study the other person’s card. If you decide to translate one side of the card into the local language, be sure you do not mix up Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi – give the right translation to the right audience or you risk serious insult. To avoid this, keeping cards in English is acceptable.

business etiquette in Sri Lanka

Faux Pas

Don’t give gifts of alcohol, or items containing pork or beef products (including leather goods). Don’t give flowers as they represent mourning. Don’t take portraits of people without consent, especially religious practitioners like monks and soldiers; ask permission and share the finished product as a show of respect.


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