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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


Working with people from various countries and cultures is a demand of my work as a scientist. For writing emails to my collaborators I start my email with "Hi" or "Dear" but then always use their names. It is the case even if I am contacting a scientist for the first time. This behaviour is a very common these days in the science community, at least the area in which I work.

However, in many occasions, I need to contact a secretary of the department where my collaborator resides and my collaborator at the same time. Usually, secretaries are more formal and hence I write to them using "Mr." or "Ms." and then their surnames. As I write to both of them (my collaborator and his/her secretary) at the same time, I find it awkward that I need to start the body of the email using a formal and informal style at the same time!

I would always find it queer the somewhat pedant and conceited attitude that many entrepreneurs carry out when they try to introduce themselves as great people. I can't help but flat-out contempt the cynicism of how false it looks when they approach people in a certain way when we know that they have an ulterior purpose behind each of their actions. Is as If they had already addressed a mindset of seeing everything as an opportunity down to the people (not necessarily in a good point) which hence makes them have this feeling of high status over the rest.

Is there any body who knows the available time for this test?

Hello Dennis,

I'm not sure what you mean here. The only test here on LearnEnglish is a level test and you can take it any time you like to get an idea of what kind of materials might be most appropriate for you. You can find it here:



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello QTN03
The first sentence of the third paragraph talks about differences of opinion over very small ('minor', 'mundane') things. When the second sentence says 'things that we are used to', it's referring to these small, mundane things that we do. The third sentence says that changes in these things can provoke big reactions, even though the things are small.
So when the question says 'they are things we are not used to', it's talking about these small things that people from other cultures often do differently. The article contends that even such small things, when done differently, can spark big reactions, which is why question 3 is marked as True.
Does that make sense?
All the best
The LearnEnglish Team

I couldn't find the answer for question No 4 task 2 in the text; I think it's not given. It merely mentioned a research has been done and no more detail.

Hello Hossein1156
I would say the statement is true because in the second paragraph of the section on smiles, it mentions people rating pictures (which is another way of saying 'photographs') of people smiling or not smiling. Does that make sense?
All the best
The LearnEnglish Team

Men shake hands every time they meet and leave a company of eachother in Russia but in the UK where I live now shaking hands with same friquency isn't thet oftet. This was a very significant nuance for me. Because if you don't strach you hand for shaking when leaving a company of an another man is really big disrespect.

Why is the correct answer to the last question of task 2 "True"? The author writes "The knowledge of the potential differences should therefore be something we keep at the back of our minds", which would, in my opinion, be contradictory to the solution that's provided. Of course, it could also be possible that I just misunderstood the text or the question. Would be great if someone could try to explain this to me.

Hello Michael

You are right, that's answer should be False, not True. I've just fixed the exercise so that it is correct.

Thanks very much for telling us about this!

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team