10 Global Behaviours To Bridge The Culture Gap

When it comes to international communication, tackling cultural differences can be a minefield and your behaviour (I like to call it etiquette) can affect your business.  Visiting or working in other countries requires that you familiarize yourself with communication styles, etiquette and organizational hierarchy, because how you behave and how you are perceived in these areas is for the most part culture-dependent.

Most business professionals nowadays are aware that customs around the world differ and that with each country comes a different culture, history, lifestyle etc,. We need to take into account these cultural nuances and bear in mind that it is considered polite to defer to the culture and tradition of the country you are visiting. That said, we need to be sure to let common sense prevail. 

Here are 10 global behaviours and guidelines that can help you bridge the cultural gaps that you may face, particularly in business environments. 

1.       Greetings - In many western cultures a handshake is expected, but there are cultures where this is not the norm. If you are greeted in an unexpected way, perhaps only by a nod of the head or an air kiss (one, two, three or four… yes four!) just accept the greeting with kindness. If your handshake is refused, it’s not necessarily a sign of rudeness, it’s probably a sign of a culture clash. 

2.       Introductions – Know how to introduce yourself and others correctly. Should you stand up? Who should you introduce first? Do you need to use titles? Do you use first or last names? This links into rank and status. 

3.       Rank and Status – Recognize the importance of this. Although certain business environments are becoming more relaxed, it’s always recommended to respect formality, at least until relationships are established. Corporate titles may vary between organisations and cultures so it’s wise to research them in advance. 

4.       Personal space – How close is too close? There are big cultural differences as to what is considered invasive. There are “contact cultures and “non-contact cultures”. In non-contact cultures, people stand farther apart and touch less, so don’t overstep the boundaries. 

5.       Dressing conservatively –  Err on the side of caution, as it’s always better to be over dressed than under dressed. Know what the situation in hand calls for. Arriving underdressed can be interpreted as unprofessional or unprepared.

6.       Timekeeping – No one can get anything wrong by being on time. Timekeeping varies around the world and when you work with a new culture, you need to understand their expectations of time as it affects everything from arrival to how business is conducted. Punctuality can be viewed as a form of respectfulness in some cultures yet in others being on time is considered being late! In some cultures (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia…) the working week is Sunday to Thursday so don’t be surprised at any reluctance for negotiations on a Thursday afternoon, it’s the equivalent to a Friday afternoon for some of us!)

7.       Dining Etiquette – Know how to use your dining utensils according to the culture you are visiting. Dining variations exist between USA, France, UK, China… so you can cause easily cause offence. Be willing to try new foods, as refusal can seem rude and drinking alcohol may be either expected or frowned upon.  Do you need to finish the food on your plate or should you leave some to show you are satisfied? You don’t need to know all the table manners of a country, just how to avoid causing offence to those seated around you. Are you the host or the guest? Who should pay? Where should everyone be seated? Careful planning goes a long way.

8.       Conversations – If you don’t speak the local language, learning a few very basic native phrases will go a long toward bridging the cultural gap. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to speak the language of every country that you visit but you can stay stay alert to certain social cues, such as body language. Otherwise be sure to avoid using slang or sarcasm, and discussing politics, religion and money as these subjects are not acceptable everywhere.

9.       Flags and Symbols - Symbols are important because they represent the history, values and culture of a country. Be respectful of symbols that are important to another culture. 

10. Meetings and negotiations – Not every culture conducts business in the same manner - business meetings can start like clockwork or involve what may seem like an excessive amount of chit chat before getting started. Knowing in advance that a Japanese business person may appear to be sleeping during a meeting or that a Brazilian business person may repeatedly interrupt you during a presentation will allow you to be remain patient, courteous and respectful of their differing business styles. 

Follow these guidelines and you’ll not put your foot, fork, hand or mouth out of place again!  Keep in mind the saying ‘When in Rome… do as the the Romans do’. 

Julia Esteve

The Etiquette Consultant