Cultural behaviour in business

Cultural behaviour in business

Read a blog post about doing business in different cultures to practise and improve your reading skills.

Do the preparation task first. Then read the text and do the exercises.


Reading text

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 so-called 'smile of respect' is seen as insincere and often regarded with suspicion in Russia. A famous Russian proverb even states that 'laughing without reason is a sign of idiocy'. 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.

Task 1

Task 2


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Submitted by COUTCHER on Sat, 11/05/2024 - 16:58


Hi to all!

I'm very happy with this article, i'd say it appears to me in due course because I'm preparing to travel abroad for schooling in a International institution that gathers students from up to 19 countries. In my opinion what has being discussed in the article may not happen only in business environment but also at school. Anyway, as from now I'm prepared. On the other hand i have experienced eye contact issue in my country Cameroon 🇨🇲 , in fact keeping eye contact with your boss is seen as challenging authority. 


Submitted by Alatam on Thu, 07/12/2023 - 09:46


There is a mistake in the article. My mother language (one of them) is Russian. The correct translation of the 'famous Russian proverb' is: 'Laughing without reason is a sign of fool'.
Laughing and smile are not the same.
The rest is right. Russians (especially older generation) don't consider smile without a specific reason as amicability, but insincerity or stupidity. They call it fake smile.

Hi Alatam,

Thank you so much for letting us know! We have amended the article.

Best wishes,


LearnEnglish team

Hi BC team,

Thank you so much for your hard work. Your lessons have been helping me to study more effectively.

In this lesson, I am wondering why the answer in Task 2 Question 2 is False. I read the article and this sentence "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'." makes me think that the answer must be True. Could you explain this to me, please? Thank you for your help.

Hi bella198,

We're really glad to hear that you are enjoying your learning :) Thanks for studying with us.

About the question, the German trainee is saying that a person with a PhD and a person with a medical degree should be addressed and respected in the same way. But for me, "equivalent" seems to have a meaning of one qualification being practically or functionally the same as the other, in a wider way.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by jmajo on Tue, 28/11/2023 - 11:37


I haven’t got a lot experience in business reunions but working with colleagues from different countries I can tell that our superiors sometimes behave like we’re all equal in the team and assume we have the same cultural backround wich not always seem apropriate to them.

Thanks for the lesson.
Great site!

Submitted by Vitaliy128 on Mon, 30/10/2023 - 07:27


This article was really informative for me. I've learned some new advanced words and got to know about cultural differences which I guess will impact my future life in a very great way because I have a strong desire to travel around the world and visit many countries. So, now I know how to act in a particular country in terms of addressing, smiling, and making eye contact. Thanks a lot for such useful information)

Submitted by betelf on Wed, 25/10/2023 - 15:22


I've heard about Japanese work culture, such as employees having to go to a pub after work often with co-workers, even when they have work the next day. While it's considered appropriate to do this, I find it a bit excessive. I value my personal life and don't want to spend all my time on work-related activities. However, I understand that not all Japanese companies have this practice, and it can be challenging for employees.

Submitted by anonymous-nl on Mon, 09/10/2023 - 16:09



This article about communication between different cultures and people really informed me. I really didn't knew that one interpetation meant something else in for example the USA. Thank you for writing this interessting passage. I extended my vocabulary. I really didn't that using my hand and face to communicate was insencer for some people!, hahahah.

Submitted by chpsueey on Wed, 04/10/2023 - 13:41


It always amazes me that these subtle differences in the way we communicate with each other have such a big impact on how we interpret another person. In my opinion, the cause for these extreme emotional reactions, that happen when a certain behaviour is not in line with the expected code of conduct, is trust. I consider myself as being raised in a culture where smiling is a sign of intelligence. When someone is not smiling, I don't think that this person is dumb or stupid. I think that this person maybe just has had a bad day or isn't in the mood to smile. But I do believe, that this person would smile, if they would meet a beloved person they havn't seen in a while; and I would also claim that this is natural for most of us. When I see a person I don't know, I usually don't just smile at them, only if I really talk to them. If a stranger would just stand there and permanently smile to me, I would try to get away from them asap, because it feels weird and I cannot trust a stranger. But if an older person I pass on the street smiles to me or another person in the grocery store is letting me pass them because I don't have that much to buy, and they smile and are kind, I consider this behaviour as intelligent. However, I could imagine that if you were born in an aggressive and antisocial environment, smiling and being kind could be perceived as weak and dumb, because you have never experienced unconditional kindness or love from another person, or even worse, they are just nice to lure you in and trick you.