6 quick ways you can avoid cultural faux pas in foreign markets


Business woman awkwardly kissing business man's hand

Business woman awkwardly kissing business man's hand

Entering a new international market, whether to connect with a new client or hash out negotiations with a supplier, can be a nerve-wracking proposition for even the most serious businessperson.

Every culture has their own set of nuances when it comes to business; even countries with seemingly similar cultures might conduct businesses in completely different ways. So how can you avoid committing a faux pas and potentially offending your foreign business partners when doing business abroad?

Successfully dealing with business partners in a different part of the world begins with awareness.

Avoid cultural blindness by assuming that everyone will do business in the same way you do. Before meeting to, or talking with, business associates from another culture, there are several areas of etiquette you should explore.

1. You might want to leave the jokes at home

Understand language expectations before you communicate, and be sensitive to language gaps on both ends of the conversation. Whether your business associates speak your language, or you theirs, confusion can still be caused by unfamiliar expressions or idioms, or even jokes.

If you don’t speak your business associates’ language, it can be polite to learn a few common greetings and expressions. Be aware that in some parts of the world, businesspeople will not ask questions if they didn’t understand something. Take care to be sure that you’ve answered all questions and that language gaps haven’t caused any confusion.

2. Talk about body language

Body language norms vary greatly from one place to another. Some cultures expect a firm handshake, while other cultures would find that same handshake overly aggressive. In certain countries, you could offend a business partner by being the first to extend your hand.

Some cultures leave plenty of personal space when talking, while people in other cultures will come in close while talking and get offended if you back away. It’s important to understand body language because simply practicing what’s common in your business culture can lead to major offenses, or mistrust, in others. The best way to get a handle on the nuances of a culture’s body language in a business setting is to talk to someone native to that culture.

3. Know what type of meeting you’re going into

A conference table might be a universal symbol of business, but business isn’t done the same way around conference tables around the world. Know whether you’re expected to arrive on time, early or even a little late to a meeting.

Know if you should take the time to small talk with the people in the meeting — and what topics are considered acceptable.

Avoid confusion on your part by understanding meeting dynamics; in some cultures, all meeting participants will speak up, while in others, one or two people of authority will chime in. You can find some great resources online to start to get a handle on the specific etiquette of the country you will be meeting with. Here’s a helpful infographic to get you started.

4. Regardless of how hungry you are, you may or may not want to finish that plate

You would think that good table manners are universal, but they are far from it. There are many cultural nuances when it comes to food. No matter where you are, you always should accept food and drink when it’s offered, but know the table rules for the culture you’re traveling to. In Japan, for instance, you should never fill your own glass.

In some countries, good manners dictate that you finish all of the food on your plate, while in other countries, the host will take an empty plate as a sign that you’re still hungry and that they failed to provide enough food.

To get a handle on dining etiquette around the world, check out this helpful infographic. It’s a good idea to walk through different stages of the meal with someone well-versed in that specific culture ahead of your travels as well.

5. When gift giving, it’s more than just the thought that counts

While it’s not the norm in the United States and Canada, in many parts of the world, new business partners will give, and expect to receive, a gift. Do your research in advance to know whether a gift is expected and what types of gifts are considered appropriate. If you’ll be receiving a gift, know what the etiquette is for receiving it.

In many gift-giving cultures, the gift should be received with both hands and shouldn’t be opened on the spot, unless you’re asked to open it by the giver. If you are sending a gift from abroad, be mindful of importing customs and don’t saddle the gift receiver with duties on arrival.

6. Brush up on every day cultural nuances

Around the world, there are a host of cultural nuances that are unique to individual places. How you receive a business card can be crucial in some cultures, and some places have specific dress requirements. You’ll want to be aware of any specific cultural nuances that exist to your business destination.

Trying to learn all of the finer points of business culture can be overwhelming. Some internet research can turn up a lot of information, though if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in a particular country or region, you might want to take a course or invest in a book on business culture in that area.

Gather intercultural information about a target market you can use to make decisions and build strong relationships after you choose the best possible sources and resources. Sign up for the quick, flexible Intercultural Competence online workshop today!

Once you’ve gotten a handle on business etiquette, remember one important element above all: Treat everyone you deal with as individuals.

There will always be people who defy the expectations of their culture, and you should read the personal cues of the specific people you’re dealing with when determining how to present yourself professionally.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Jennifer Nesbitt

Jennifer Nesbitt is a New York-based freelance copywriter. A former journalist and graduate of Penn State University, Jennifer now writes about a variety of topics, including business, technology and marketing. She is passionate about helping companies develop their brands by providing compelling copy that adds value to their online presence.

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