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Cultural behaviour in business

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Much of today's business is conducted across international borders, and while the majority of the global business community might share the use of English as a common language, the nuances and expectations of business communication might differ greatly from culture to culture. A lack of understanding of the cultural norms and practices of our business acquaintances can result in unfair judgements, misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. Here are three basic areas of differences in the business etiquette around the world that could help stand you in good stead when you next find yourself working with someone from a different culture.

Addressing someone

When discussing this topic in a training course, a German trainee and a British trainee got into a hot debate about whether it was appropriate for someone with a doctorate to use the corresponding title on their business card. The British trainee maintained that anyone who wasn't a medical doctor expecting to be addressed as 'Dr' was disgustingly pompous and full of themselves. The German trainee, however, argued that the hard work and years of education put into earning that PhD should give them full rights to expect to be addressed as 'Dr'.

This stark difference in opinion over something that could be conceived as minor and thus easily overlooked goes to show that we often attach meaning to even the most mundane practices. When things that we are used to are done differently, it could spark the strongest reactions in us. While many Continental Europeans and Latin Americans prefer to be addressed with a title, for example Mr or Ms and their surname when meeting someone in a business context for the first time, Americans, and increasingly the British, now tend to prefer using their first names. The best thing to do is to listen and observe how your conversation partner addresses you and, if you are still unsure, do not be afraid to ask them how they would like to be addressed.


A famous Russian proverb states that 'a smile without reason is a sign of idiocy' and a so-called 'smile of respect' is seen as insincere and often regarded with suspicion in Russia. Yet in countries like the United States, Australia and Britain, smiling is often interpreted as a sign of openness, friendship and respect, and is frequently used to break the ice.

In a piece of research done on smiles across cultures, the researchers found that smiling individuals were considered more intelligent than non-smiling people in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, China and Malaysia. However, in countries like Russia, Japan, South Korea and Iran, pictures of smiling faces were rated as less intelligent than the non-smiling ones. Meanwhile, in countries like India, Argentina and the Maldives, smiling was associated with dishonesty.

Eye contact

An American or British person might be looking their client in the eye to show that they are paying full attention to what is being said, but if that client is from Japan or Korea, they might find the direct eye contact awkward or even disrespectful. In parts of South America and Africa, prolonged eye contact could also be seen as challenging authority. In the Middle East, eye contact across genders is considered inappropriate, although eye contact within a gender could signify honesty and truthfulness.

Having an increased awareness of the possible differences in expectations and behaviour can help us avoid cases of miscommunication, but it is vital that we also remember that cultural stereotypes can be detrimental to building good business relationships. Although national cultures could play a part in shaping the way we behave and think, we are also largely influenced by the region we come from, the communities we associate with, our age and gender, our corporate culture and our individual experiences of the world. The knowledge of the potential differences should therefore be something we keep at the back of our minds, rather than something that we use to pigeonhole the individuals of an entire nation.



Language level

Advanced: C1


I think, when I was in high school, and when I talked to my friends, She used high intonation/ talk loudly to me, and I think it was so inappropriate, especially for girls who talk like that.

What practices have you encountered that seemed strange or even inappropriate to you?

- Once I went out shopping in the mall, and some stranger was looking directly into my eyes like literal staring! It was SO uncomfortable for me. Hate these kinds of people smh

Can somebody explain me why the question 2 in True False task is false, please. Thank you.

Hello hanayuki,

The German trainee thinks that a PhD means you should be addressed with the title Doctor, but that is not the same as thinking that a PhD is equivalent to being a medical doctor. If the two qualifications were equivalent then they would both allow a person to practise medicine, which is clearly not the case.




The LearnEnglish Team


What practices have you encountered that seemed strange or even inappropriate to you?

I would say, I hate a situation when I pass someone and he or she give me a yellow smile . if you are not ready to smile to someone do not smile as simple as that

It is very difficult to notice every taboo in each different culture, so i think the best way to not disrespect others is ask them directly if you have some worries. May be they are gonna say its okay , out of their shyness. But they will nare it after you ask them, it is about respect that you are showing to them.

This course is very interesting, especially in business area. For misunderstanding cultural practices may be a huge blockage to create a good relationship with business partners around the world.
Thanks for the lesson

While living in Portugal, initially I have noticed some cultural diferences that were obvious in social relationships, at first I misinterpreted it as racism or lack of hospitality, but then I realised that it is their nature. With time I got used to it and now I see that they are really friendly.

The practices I has encountered that seems inappropriate includes respect, addressing someone, eye contact, smiling, hugging and kissing by married person to another personality. And so on, just to mention a few.

Well, since the world has been going through a long way of globalization, this kind of cultural behavior should not be a great deal. However, getting to know other cultures is not a habit we own yet although as professional people we must react with empathy and reasonable openness toward others with different cultural backgrounds rather than just behaving pompously.