Rethinking Your Cultural Business Etiquette 

Doing business around the globe can lead to cultural barriers, misunderstandings and possibly lost revenue. Eight changes you can make to foster cross-cultural intelligence and improve the way you conduct international business.

In the American business world, there is a generally accepted, and often unspoken, etiquette that most businesspeople follow. Be on time, dress professionally, use a firm handshake, make eye contact, show initiative, be respectful of your superiors and so on. Take a look around the world, however, and you will find widely diverse protocols that can quickly lead to cultural barriers, misunderstandings and possibly lost revenue.

From punctuality to attire to physical contact and personal space, the code of behavior varies wildly across different cultures. When doing business in a global, geo-political world, these differences can be tricky to navigate, especially in virtual meetings. But the broad representation of different cultures goes a long way toward making businesses more competitive. Culturally inclusive and diverse companies are shown to see higher profits. Diverse teams are more innovative, better at making decisions, and are more likely to capture new markets.

Cultural awareness can have a big impact on the growth of your business. More importantly, though, it is a matter of showing respect and earning the trust of your international partners and colleagues. It is about establishing common ground so that decisions, deals, and relationships start from the same foundation.  And to build that foundation, you may have to make some adjustments in how you do business.

Below we will look at eight changes you can make to foster cross-cultural intelligence and improve the way you conduct international business.

1. Do your research and be prepared.

Over 80% of CEOs recognize empathy as a key to success. Before meeting with any international business associates, invest time in learning how they act, speak, dress, and conduct business. Even if everyone speaks English, make the effort to learn how to say “hello” and “thank you” in their language. Be aware of what titles, if any, should be used. The simple awareness and empathy of what they do and why it helps you better adapt to their needs. Also, the planning you do before the meeting is often more important than what you do in the actual meeting. In many cultures, meetings are not where the decisions are made; they are an opportunity for asking questions and exploring possibilities. Therefore, distributing all necessary information prior to the meeting gives everyone involved time to review so that they can comment on it intelligently. In an ideal world, the materials should also be translated into their language to make things easier.

2. Hire your own interpreter.

Even when you have all materials translated, if you are not fluent in each other’s languages the potential for miscommunication is high. To prevent any misunderstandings, it is a good idea to have an interpreter on hand. This gives everyone an equal opportunity to comprehend everything that is discussed. Even if the other party has an interpreter in the meeting, always have your own interpreter on hand, as you never know what the other side may discuss.

3. Tone down the assertiveness.

Americans are known for being direct, assertive, and loud. Some countries, like Germany, share this quality when sharing ideas and doing business. In other countries like Japan, however, people tend to speak softly and are not as forthcoming when making suggestions or sharing their ideas. Doing your research will help you know if being assertive is appropriate or if you are coming across as pushy and aggressive. When in doubt, use a neutral tone and be considerate of everyone’s input, even if they communicate in a way you are not accustomed to.

4. Beware of nonverbals.

A mere 7% of what we communicate is expressed with words. The remaining 93% is conveyed with body language. Nonverbal communication can be complicated in any setting, but with so much business taking place virtually these days, it is more important than ever to be aware of what you are saying with your body language. From intense eye contact to large hand gestures to loosening your tie in a meeting, there is a minefield of ways you could inadvertently insult an international colleague. Learning and practicing nonverbal cues that are common in your associate’s culture will be worth the effort to avoid coming across as rude and offensive.

5. Watch what you say.

Avoid using slang, local idioms, or “Americanisms.” For example, sports metaphors like “that came out of left field” or “can you pinch-hit this one for me” are not universally understood. Your associate may not understand what you’re talking about, and it is unlikely they will tell you, which can make them feel isolated and unaccepted. Be careful making jokes as well. While a good sense of humor is an asset in any potentially awkward cultural situation, jokes can lead to misunderstandings and possibly be offensive.

6. Don’t try to multi-task.

According to a survey from Intercall, the largest international conference call company, “65 percent of people do unrelated work during a meeting, 60 percent read or send e-mails, and 43 percent admit to checking social media.” While it may be easy to slyly multi-task in a virtual meeting, if it’s noticed, you’ll come across as rude. In addition, when meeting with an international client or colleague, whether virtually or in person, there’s a lot going on. From considering their cultural norms to understanding the interpreter in the background, to making important business decisions, you don’t want to get distracted from your main objectives. Save yourself a lot of trouble and keep your attention on the task at hand.

7. Consider how other cultures view time.

Many countries place a high level of importance on starting meetings on time and keeping to strict schedules. On the other hand, punctuality is treated casually in countries like France or Argentina. This fluctuation can affect how much relevant information you have time to share. Understanding your client’s culture can help you prepare and organize the meeting agenda accordingly.

Time is also a consideration in the decision-making process. For example, the UK has a slower process than the US. Germany also takes its time, being very thorough in early stages, but once they have made a decision, things move quickly. Understanding and managing your time expectations is critical.

8. Recognize hierarchical structures.

Hierarchical structure can impact the way business meetings are handled. In many East Asian, Latin, and African cultures, decision-making authority varies according to age, gender, family background, etc., and team roles are allocated accordingly. Even the way the meeting is conducted in these countries is affected. For example, in China you should always allow the host to leave the meeting first. Virtual meetings may minimize these issues since there are no seating arrangements, but because the rules and protocols can be complicated, it’s a good idea to explicitly outline the expected formalities ahead of time so everyone knows how to interact.

Cultural Awareness is Your Competitive Advantage 

Embracing cultural awareness and diversity is a crucial part of doing business in an ever-expanding world. Cross-cultural intelligence inspires creativity, encourages inventive thinking, and fosters better problem solving. The local market insight you get makes your business more competitive and profitable. It allows you to better adapt your products and services to be more meaningful and valuable to all your customers.

study done by McKinsey and Company showed that companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits. When you make a genuine and concerted effort to understand cultural dimensions, you can build a greater understanding between the different cultures in your organization. This ultimately leads to understanding, trust, respect—and competitive advantages—in a very complex world.


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