Understanding cross-cultural etiquette in business


Today, in our highly integrated global economy, easy access to air travel and sophisticated communication technology means that even for start-ups, the 'world' is your target market.

To be successful and accepted there is a need for some cultural understanding

If you want to succeed in international business, an appreciation, understanding and some knowledge of a country's customs, habits, traditions, religions and social behaviour are vital.

There are substantial differences in culture and the way business is done between the major world regions; compare Asia, Africa, Middle East, China and Russia as just a few examples.

The internet can of course give you useful tips and help in understanding differing cultures in terms of business practice but another avenue is to speak to Embassy staff or Diplomats. In addition; translators and tourist information centres are only too happy to give tips and guidance.

If you are visiting the country in which you are doing business, use your own powers of observation particularly for non-verbal cues. How do people greet each other in the airport arrivals hall and in office receptions? How animated are people when communicating? How do people part company? Are females in business accepted and treated as equals? Mindfully observing can give you some important insights into cultural communication.

Key elements to think about:

  1. First impressions count. How should you greet someone? What is the correct etiquette at the first meeting, a robust handshake or a bow of the head? How do you exchange a business card and so on? What is the manner of language you should use?

  2. Any absolute taboos? In certain countries and cultures, there are topics or behaviours that are absolutely unmentionable. The list of taboos is endless so ensure you have done your research.

  3. Cultural perceptions. People in Russia may have differing views about the USA, Chinese and British culture, for example, and likewise people in Asia may have preconceptions about people from Africa and vice-versa. It is beneficial to be aware and informed of how your country or culture may be perceived in your destination.

  4. Communication. Make sure you talk slowly, concisely and your diction is as clear as possible, watch the body language and communication style of your host to ensure you are getting your point across in a way that is being understood.

    • English is the accepted international language of business but learning some basic phrases of your host language will always impress. Knowing some basic phrases demonstrates that you are interested in your host's culture, and also that you've made an effort.

  5. Be prepared. Have a couple of interesting / current news worthy topics to discuss including the weather. Avoid contentious subjects such as religion and politics and try to be engaged with their world and stimulate conversations around your research. People will always be impressed that you have shown interest in their culture and country.

What you will learn from experience

Successful business relationships are often about people who can get on and who have ‘things’ in common. The dissimilarity between cultures then becomes immaterial. The secret of this is curiosity and genuine interest.

Ultimately, it's the people underneath the culture that you're trying to forge relationships with. The more honest and open you are, the more inquisitive you are, the more you extend a hand of friendship before business, the more likely you are to have strong, successful, international relations.

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