international-business-culture

International Business Culture 101: Corporate Etiquette on a Global Scale

Different countries, different etiquette. For more and more executives, communicating with syndicates and sister companies, suppliers and clients in foreign countries is becoming a part of the daily grind. Professional know-how and industry expertise aren’t the only important factors for success nowadays; intercultural awareness and an understanding of different leadership skills are also increasingly important. For insights into the shifting global business landscape, and how to improve your interactions with other international business cultures, read on.

international business culture

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When companies enter new markets, cooperations in international project teams, or production processes can often fall victim to misunderstandings. These issues are mostly due to mismatched expectations, misinterpretations, and faulty communication. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Oftentimes, top executives and managers lack the instinctual tact and sensitivity when it comes to dealing with other cultures and their unique leadership styles. However, interactions between different mentalities is an increasingly critical factor in professional success. The solution is simple: executives must improve their intercultural competencies, and develop a better appreciation for the mentalities and values of other cultures.

The Biggest Intercultural Pitfalls

Shaped by their own experiences and interactions, everyone has their own cultural perspective on the world. What’s normal for one person may be considered a personal affront to another. We can see this even in the smallest interactions: In India, it’s frowned upon to show your conversation partner the soles of your feet, or to eat with the left hand, as it’s considered “unclean.” Shaking your head from side to side there means “yes,” instead of “no. In many Western countries, the classic “O.K.” sign, where the index finger and thumb form a circle, is downright obscene in Central and South America. While noisy eating and lipsmacking is considered normal in China, blowing one’s nose is thought to be revolting.

Respect for another culture’s etiquette can sometimes even be considered more important than the traditions of the company. But what’s even worse than poor manners is disregard for another company’s style of thinking and leadership. To act as if one is above these cultural differences is to give the impression that you are systematically working against them.

Dealing with Other Business Cultures: Asia

In negotiations, Germans typically focus on the matter at hand, separating business talk from small talk, and their aim is to achieve their end goal as quickly as possibly. In some cultures, this is considered impolite. Regardless of the strength of your product, it’s almost impossible to get into business with associates from Asian, Arabic or Latin American societies, unless you focus on building a good relationship first.

Germans are also known for speaking their mind, and sometimes pointedly – but this practice is especially disliked by most Asian cultures. A clear “No” in response to a direct question is often interpreted as extremely rude. But this can often mean that it’s difficult to determine what an Asian colleague really means to say. The Japanese often use the word “no” in connection with a question in response, or a rambling, drawn out answer. The background to this mannerism stems from the culture, in which even a small criticism can be considered “losing face.” The concern over “losing face” in this culture can lead to serious professional difficulties.

For people from a wide-spread culture, like in Asia, collectivist cultures have important social requirements, like recognition, inclusion in a group, and harmony are extremely valuable. Colleagues approach their superiors as submissives, and acknowledge their place as such. The relationship between managers and their direct reports is marked by obedience and mutual respect. In China, so-called “Alphas” are frequently seen in leadership positions; people who come across as decisive, sovereign, and assertive.

Cultural Differences in Daily Working Life: USA 

The values scale is completely different in the “individualistic” culture like in the USA. In the States, the individual is in the foreground, rather than the individual. For the employees, values like self-actualization, individualism and equal opportunity are all very important. The relationship between employees and management is loyal, and factors like payment and recognition are very important. Germans find interactions with US colleagues and supervisors to be casual and informal; a first meeting usually starts with small talk.

But in stark contrast to the impression of a relaxed exchange, the USA pays close attention to hierarchies. The bosses have the final say, and make important decisions that aren’t always discussed with their employees. Employees expect lots of praise and recognition in a way that most Germans consider to be “over-the-top.” Criticism should be dealt with delicately.

Intercultural Interactions: The Golden Rules

There’s a golden rule that applies to all cultures: Avoid controversial topics like religion or politics, as it’s easy to offend your business partner, and consequently, damage your working relationships. But don’t overthink it – trying too hard to blend in will also work against you. The art lies in paying attention to the overarching norms, without losing your own sense of identity. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of how your home country and its culture are viewed by others.

Take, for example, the Germans.

On the positive side, they’re typically known for being reliable, disciplined, punctual and hard-working. At the same time, they’re thought to be arrogant know-it-alls, with a superiority complex. And what’s more, their aloof demeanor and direct negotiation styles may be considered offensive by some. If you’re German, try to espouse the more positive virtues – show up on time for meetings, be reliable when it comes to maintaining appointments, and react in a timely fashion to requests and emails. At the same time, pay attention to the negative stereotypes – when suggesting improvements, approach the subject with great caution, and try to help the group reach a consensus, rather than insisting, “Your way is wrong, and this way is right.”

At the same time, chances are that your international contact will understand that other countries have other cultural norms, and will most likely overlook any small faux pas. But be aware – the more frequently you meet, the less effective your “foreign charm” will be, so you’ll need to pay more attention to your behavior. Besides “learning by doing,” you can also improve by taking intercultural trainings to make future collaborations more effective. Then, you’ll have nothing in your way on the path to success on the international stage!


About the Author:
Markus Hofelich
Markus Hofelich is a journalist specializing in economics and finance. He lives with his family south of Munich. He gained his experience in journalism as the Editorial Leader of the DIV, the German Industry Publisher, as the Editor-in-Chief of Cash, as well as the Editor-in-Chief of the economics magazine “Unternehmeredition,” from GoingPublic Media AG. Markus Hofelich studied at the University of Passau and the Sorbonne in Paris.

His newest project is a website, SinndesLebens24.dean online magazine for philosophy, happiness and motivation, and is always open for new opportunities.


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