|What could be wrong with sipping vodka in Russia? Or with eating with your left hand in India, or with patting the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”?In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense. They could even damage a relationship or ruin a major deal.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world.
In this article, we’ll discuss why it is so important to be aware of different cultural traditions. We’ll also highlight some gestures and actions to avoid if you want to build good working relationships with people from these cultures.
The Importance of Cultural Awareness
It’s not just professionals working overseas who need to learn cross-cultural business etiquette. Stop and think about how many different cultures you come into contact with at work.
Even if you work in your home country, your colleagues and suppliers could hail from other cultures. Your organization might decide to acquire or merge with an organization in a different country. And your customers, too, may be located in dozens of countries worldwide.
Our world’s diversity is what makes it so fascinating. When you take time to understand the reasons for this diversity, you show respect for other people’s cultures. And when you do this in a business context, you’ll improve your working relationships and develop your own reputation.
Considering Cultural Differences
Consider the following questions when thinking about how a culture might differ from your own:
- What values does this culture embrace? How do these values compare with those of your culture?
- How do people make decisions, conduct relationships, and display emotion?
- How does this culture treat time and scheduling?
- What are the social rules and boundaries surrounding gender?
- How does this culture display and respect power? Which authority figures are revered?
- How do individuals relate to their employers?
- How do people in this culture communicate? How direct are they in what they say and mean?
See our article on cultural intelligence to learn how to work well in different cultures. This is a powerful skill that can be learned and developed throughout your working life.Tip 2:
Be humble. Whatever you learn about cultural differences, there will be local and regional variations that you won’t know about. Admit that you’re keen to learn, and encourage people to tell you about these variations.
Common Cross-Cultural Mistakes
Below we’ve listed actions and items that could cause offense in a variety of cultures and countries. (Note, however, that this list isn’t exhaustive!)
People abstain from eating and drinking certain foods for many religious and cultural reasons. Manners and expectations at the table can also differ.
- In Asian and Russian cultures, it’s common not to talk during a meal because the food is the focus. Most conversation takes place after dinner. This isn’t the case in, for example, Japan, where colleagues often discuss work after hours and while socializing over a meal.
- How much you eat can cause offense in some cultures. For example, your hosts in Russia, Greece, and Italy could be offended if you don’t eat enough.
- Pay careful attention to how you use your chopsticks in Asian countries. Never use them in a gesture or for pointing, and never stick them upright in your rice bowl: this is an omen of death. Don’t use them to spear a piece of food or to tap a glass or bowl, either. And never cross your chopsticks; they should always lie side by side.
- Try to avoid turning down vodka in Russia – when it’s offered, it’s a sign of trust and friendship. Vodka is served neat, and you should drink it all at once; Russians consider sipping vodka to be rude.
- Muslims, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists avoid alcohol.
- Hindus, India’s largest religious population, consider it unholy to eat beef. Most are also vegetarian. Muslims and Jews are forbidden to eat pork (and, in addition, Jews do not eat shellfish), and Roman Catholics may choose fish rather than red meat on Fridays.
Body Language and Gestures
- In India, Africa, and the Middle East, people always use their right hand for greeting, touching, and eating. They consider the left hand unclean, so you should never use it for anything publicly.
- Several cultures consider crossing your legs to be rude. For example, in the Middle East and South Africa, crossed legs often show the sole of the foot, a sign of an ill wish or a bad omen. In Japan, it’s considered rude to cross your legs in the presence of someone older or more respected than you.
- Certain gestures considered acceptable in one country can be highly offensive in another. For example, a “thumbs up” gesture is seen as a sign of satisfaction in the West, but is highly offensive in some Middle Eastern countries.
- In the United States, a handshake demonstrates that negotiations are finished, and that everyone is leaving on good terms. In the Middle East, a handshake is a sign that serious negotiations are now beginning.
- In many cultures, pointing is impolite, so it’s usually best to avoid it entirely. If you must gesture toward something, use your entire hand.
It can be challenging to know which gestures are taboo.A good rule of thumb is to avoid gestures until you’re sure that they’re acceptable. Watch how locals use body language, and follow their lead.
Clothing and Color
- In the South Pacific, Asia, Thailand, and Russia, it’s courteous to remove your shoes before entering a home. This helps maintain cleanliness; but it’s also a sign that you’re leaving the outside world where it belongs.
- Some cultures pay careful attention to clothing. For example, it’s important to be well dressed in Italy and the United Arab Emirates, and sloppy or casual clothing is considered impolite.
- The color of your clothing could also cause offense. For example, never wear yellow in Malaysia; this color is reserved for royalty. In China, you’ll make a better impression by wearing red, which is considered lucky, than by wearing white, which is associated with death.
Personal space is the distance that you keep between yourself and another person. It varies widely between cultures.
- In the United States, many people prefer to keep one to two meters’ space between friends and family members, and up to three meters between strangers and business associates. These preferences are similar in the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, and other European countries.
- The personal space requirements of Saudi Arabians are much lower: they often stand very close to one another, even those they don’t know well.
- Chinese people and people from other Asian cultures are also typically used to less personal space than Westerners.
It’s important to understand the personal space requirements of a different culture, so that you’re not perceived as rude (by standing too far away) or pushy (by standing too close).
Personal space also includes touching. In Mediterranean and South American cultures, touching is an important part of conversation and connecting. If you don’t touch others, you’ll be considered cold. However, in Eastern countries, touching is often considered taboo, and you’ll offend your colleagues if you even pat them on the back or touch their arm.
Cross-cultural awareness is an essential skill, regardless of whether you’re working overseas, leading a cross-cultural or virtual team, or dealing with a global customer base. Learn about the culture of the country where you’re doing business to avoid cultural mistakes, and to demonstrate respect and understanding.
Research key differences in decision making, relationships, dress, food, dining, and social etiquette before working with or traveling to a different culture. Your hosts will notice your efforts, and appreciate that you took the time to learn about their culture.
Business is changing. The experts sure seem to think so. Every day, some new article hypes a brave new world of egalitarian openness and collaboration. That might be true if you work for yourself. For the rest of us, it’s still a winner-take-all, command-and-control world. Always has been, always will be. The experts may own the language, but not reality. When leaders feel threatened or the ink runs red, they rarely tap into their talent for solutions. More often, they cut communication and withdraw behind closed doors. Corporate culture can overcome many hurdles, but never human nature.
In reality, business has evloved little. Work still involves small victories and slow progress, often ambiguous and rarely permanent. That said, what drives workers has changed little too. Besides money, they want a voice. They dream of receiving a fair shot to make a difference. And they long to feel special. And all that starts with communication. These days, we’re taught that tone and body language are the message. But words – and what they signify – matter too. Over time, your character, competence, and caring may be revealed by your actions. In a micro world, it is the right words used at the right moments that spark conversations and build bridges between people.
1) Thank You: Common courtesy? Sure. But tell me this: When was the last time you forgot (or rejected) gratitude? Whether given in private or public, a sincere ‘thanks’ creates goodwill. Don’t forget your mother’s advice: “Say please.” People are always happier doing a favor than taking an order.
2) I Trust Your Judgment: Translation: “You have my permission. I believe in you. Now, go make it happen.” Feels pretty uplifting to hear that, doesn’t it? And I’ll bet you’d do almost anything to please someone who makes you feel that way. Your employees and peers are no different.
3) I Don’t Know: We don’t have all the answers. And it scares us to death. That’s a perfect point to start a dialogue…over facts and fears. Facing the unknown – and seeking assurances and answers – bonds people like nothing else. All you have to do is first admit what you don’t know.
4) Tell Me More: “I’m all ears.” It’s the ultimate conversation starter! When you signal that you’re open and intrigued, the other party will respond in kind. And who can resist flattery? Use phrases like “What do you think” or “What would you do” to acknowledge someone’s expertise. In doing so, you’re courting authentic suggestions, even if they challenge convention or skewer a sacred cow. If your interest is genuine, you may just fuel a productive exchange.
5) What I Hear You Saying Is: Ever wonder if someone has been listening to you? Be assured the person speaking to you is. So here’s a way to keep the ideas flowing. Step back and rephrase what someone says. In fact, vaguely distort or stray from it. This offers two benefits. It implies that you’re engaged, increasing the likelihood you’ll get more detail. It also helps you gauge the other person’s preparation, reasoning, and seriousness. It’s a win-win for everyone.
6) I’m On It: You’re giving your full attention. You’re saying, “Relax. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll see to it personally.” That response can disarm just about anyone. To express a deeper commitment, use “You have my word.” This makes you more accountable to someone, conveying that you’re on board and will make it happen…whatever it takes.
7) How Else Can I Help You: It takes guts to speak up. People risk rejection, ridicule, or retaliation. Sure, you’ve discussed one issue. Chances are, this was just a test balloon to see how you’d react. This person probably wants to cover more; he’s just hesitant to ask. Make it easy on him. Extend the proverbial “what can I do” invitation to widen the conversation. And don’t be afraid to ask for help occasionally, either. People love to lend a hand. It provides purpose. When you’re humble and vulnerable, it humanizes you. It makes you one of them. And people trust those with whom they can identify.
8) I’ve Got Your Back: We’ve all made big mistakes. When we’ve recognized the gravity, the same question automatically pops up: “Am I getting fired for this?” It’s natural for co-workers and reports to imagine worst case scenarios. In those times, step in with a reassurance: “I’m not judging you. You’re going to get through this. You’re not alone. We’ll figure this out together. It’s going to be OK.”
9) My Pleasure: This subtle reminder reinforces a key point. You’re here to help others. You have all the time they need. And you’re happy to do it.
10) What If: Call it whatever you want: Imagination, wonder, inspiration, or vision. It’s that “why not” spirit that’s driven men and women to dream, create, and push limits. How often do you channel this force to hit it off with others? When was the last time you used a phrase like “How can we make this happen” or “Let’s try this out?” Go ahead. Open the floor to everyone. Put every option on the table. Don’t judge them based on budgetary, time, labor, or cultural considerations. Sure, most ideas won’t be feasible or relevant. But you’re seeking that nugget that makes your organization just a little more competitive and enjoyable. You can find the means another time.
11) Let Me Play Devil’s Advocate: Looking for a subtle way to critique? Turn the conversation into an exercise where you’re a detached party performing a function: Poking holes in the logic and plan of attack. Maybe you need to reel the other person back to the big picture. Maybe you want to direct him towards missing pieces, pros and cons, or alternatives. Either way, you use this strategy to stress test ideas without making the process personal.
12) Let Me Think About That: Yeah, it sounds like a cop out. And it is…sometimes. Fact is, we don’t always have the authority or expertise to make decisions. This phrase buys you time and breathing space. It intimates that you’re open-minded and the request merits consideration. Then, set a date and time for follow up so the other person knows you’re taking him serious.
13) Well Done: It’s a cliché, no doubt. Sometimes, it isn’t enough just to say thanks. People want to know what they did was great and why. They pour so much sweat and soul into their projects. They need more than recognition that a task or goal was completed. They need to know their work was special and had meaning to someone.
14) You’re Right: Want to get someone’s attention? Tell him that he’s right. Once you yield the high ground, it’s much easier for the other party to swallow that the right plan and sentiment can’t always overcome the absurdities and restraints we face every day.
15) I Understand: People have such an innate desire to connect. They long to know they’re not alone, seeking others who’ve been where they are – and have successfully made it through. Helping someone doesn’t always involve making suggestions or calls. It may just involve being there, paying attention to what a person has to say. Most times, that’s enough to show you understand.
What phrases do you use to make people feel more comfortable, motivated, and appreciated?