Mind the cultural gap

Dealing with international clients in multinational corporation? Or maybe you swing into action with your new international business? In any case, you should bear in mind that cultural stereotypes and generalization can get you into trouble. If you rack your brain how to work with people from other cultures in such a way that it won’t jeopardize business relationships and possible contracts, this article will provide a dash of insight into some strategies to cross cultural communication.

Let me break down for you „Bridging the Culture Gap: A Practical Guide to International Business Communication” which is solely based on the real business situations described by international clients of the Canning agency. The authors of the book: Peny Carté – the Research and Development Director at Canning and Chris Fox – the Trainer and Managing Director give us some precious advice:

  • Never assume that you know what someone else is thinking.
  • Ask open questions (ones that start with who, what, why, where, how etc.) to try to find out more. You can also ask „yes” or „no” questions to confirm that your understanding is correct.
  • Answer client’s concerns calmly and reasonably.
  • Most Northern Europeans and North Americans emphasize the written word and the signed contract which carry more weight than what people say in a meeting. In other cultures businesspeople commit the most important agreements to the spoken word (for instance, Algeria). If they take notes, it’s not a signal that they don’t trust you. They’re just trying to be professional and get things right.
  • Make a conscious effort to step outside your preconceptions and prejudices.
  • Customs and habits may completely vary, i.e. the Asians and Europeans tend to be group-oriented and hierarchical, while Americans tend toward individualism.
  • Measure your manners by the manners of those around you.
  • Always be flexible, but draw the line at illegality.
  • Jokes, like wine, don’t travel well.

Flat hierarchy versus vertical hierarchy

According to Peny Carté and Chris Fox, hierarchy is the most touchy and tricky issue in the international business. The Americans, Germans, Swiss, Dutch and British businesspeople have a relatively flat hierarchy, which means in practice that they prefer egalitarianism and power sharing among participants in a given activity. Nonetheless, the Indians and Asians tend to be more hierarchical. Translation: in some parts of India and Asia the only way to ask your colleagues to do something is to have your superior contact their superior.

Gift or bribe?

In Arab and Japanese culture business is personal, thus gift-giving and exchanging favours are important components of business making. In Western, strictly legalistic cultures that kind of gestures are perceived as ambiguous. The authors state that „multinationals from Northern Europe avoid any hint of corruption. They won’t even allow their employees to pay for a business associate’s dinner; or, indeed, to accept a meal. And even in Japan – a relative truth culture, where business is personal – a number of leading companies have now banned the traditional, twice-yearly exchange of gifts. Until recently, most Japanese business people presented beautifully wrapped gifts to a whole network of business associates during the official summer (o-chugen) and winter (o-seibo) gift-giving seasons”. However, there are American companies that obey a simple rule: „Don’t accept anything that can’t be consumed in a day.” Thus, a business dinner is OK, but a fancy vacation is not.


A simple handshake in western cultures is necessary, but elsewhere it can be treated as rude or hostile. Before you meet businesspeople from other country make sure you know how to greet them properly. For instance, a long, firm handshake in France is consider impolite. The Arab handshake is limp and quite long. In South Africa the accepted greeting is a firm handshake, the stronger, the better.

  • Kissing young women’s hands in Europe can make them feel awkward.
  • Greeting your colleagues with a hug is common in Italy but this friendly display of affection can be misconstrued elsewhere.
  • In some countries jumping into business conversation without lengthy small talk is consider as rude.
  • Eye contact can be also the cause of misunderstanding. In Middle Eastern cultures it is less common to look someone directly in the eye. It is also less appropriate in Asian cultures. In other strong hierarchical cultures, such as African or Latin American, the intense eye contact is misconstrued as confrontational.
  • Act as people around you. If they are self-restraint, don’t be loud and vice versa.
  • Tone down the gestures when dealing with Brits as they don’t use their hand for emphasis when speaking.


Don’t try to be funny at all costs. It’s perfectly OK to have a sense of humor but don’t go overboard. Keep to the straight and narrow boundaries. Sexual humor is the most risky of all. It may be sometimes acceptable, or at the most treated with awkward giggle or silence in Europe, but ends up with lawsuit in the U.S. The Brits take irony in with their mothers’ milk, but for Americans ironic comments aren’t the natural way of communication. Nevertheless, let’s not to jump to the conclusions that the British people make fun of you. It is their way to defuse heavy atmosphere or to ease uncomfortable situation.

Monochronic versus Polychronic cultures

As Peny Carté and Chris Fox point out „the North Americans are highly monochronic. In their culture, people are judged by how well they can control their time. And people who can’t do so are not to be trusted.” Monochronic cultures like Northern Europe, Canada or U.S. value punctuality, orderliness and get repulsed by interruptions. Respecting somebodies time is a matter of courtesy and showing a great sense of commitment and efficiency. Arriving several minutes earlier to business meetings is a simple way to respect your colleagues, prevents you from distracting others and provides opportunities for fellowship.

It’s not so hard to guess that a lot of cultures are highly polychromic (sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America, the Arab part of the Middle East) and are not particularly clock-watching. Remember that patience is a virtue when dealing with the people who act as if they have all the time in the world.

If you continuously think of your oversea colleagues as devious and uncooperative, you probably should focus on their cultural background and get to know their ways better. The additional help awaits you at CANNING AGENCY Good luck!

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