Cultural behaviour in business

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

Instructions

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.

Smiling

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.

Discussion

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Submitted by Defalco398 on Thu, 04/08/2022 - 06:05

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Hello and also thanks for being a great help in the way of us teachers
I just had this exam for my students and I encountered some questions which seem to have inappropriate answers
For instance for the third question of task 2 : in the article it is mentioned that "things we ARE used to but done differently could spark the strongest reactions in us"
But in the question it's written things we are not used to so it should be false.
I'd be happy if you'd fix the answer key or me in the case that I'm wrong
Anyway thanks for your great team and hard work.

Hello Defalco398,

The idea here is that changes from what we regard as normal can spark strong reactions. From the point of view of the article, things we are used to that don't happen aren't much different from things we are not used to that do happen. The example of using titles such as 'Ms' or 'Mr' in different cultures is an example of this. If a person from place A (where they always use such titles) speaks with a person from place B (where they never use such titles) and person B speaks to them without the title, this is something they aren't used to.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by meknini on Thu, 14/07/2022 - 09:03

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I can't really say which practices are strange or inappropriate as I think what is being practiced in that culture has been accepted as a norm thus it suits their cultural setting. One practice that I was actually quite surprised was the practice of kissing their parents feet during some religious celebrations which I found is quite unique to that particular territory and not done or even accepted by other regions. Some even claim that kissing their parents feet are seen as unholy or even bordering on sinful. As for my thoughts on this, if it has been inherited through generations by the local folks, we, the outsiders should just accept it as the way it is and not interfere or comment even though we are uncomfortable. Well, we can't expect to be comfortable with everything that goes on in this world since we are a large pot of diverse humanity and people.

Submitted by Sumi.M on Fri, 11/03/2022 - 12:12

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Being strange to me:
According to my resources, “the middle finger” is a very dangerous, insulting hand gesture, so you must not do it in Western culture countries.
Also, I hear that in the UK “V sign” with back of the hands toward the recipient means a similar gesture.
But it sound strange for me, probably for Japanese in general.
I never see such a gesture in my country, and I can’t really feel it.
Probably these senses are cultivated in the long history, which is understandable yet hard to realize.
You must be careful such gestures have special meanings in foreign countries.

On the other hand, if someone points a finger at me, I feel unpleasant because I feel some hostility against me with that gesture. Yet I don’t usually think about it.
Probably Japanese don’t do it, at least in the formal situation.

Submitted by tuguu4 on Thu, 10/03/2022 - 03:16

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In Mongolia, eye contact is honesty thing in business meeting. If you do so to another gender person in public place that is the rudeness.

Submitted by Suraj paliwal on Mon, 25/10/2021 - 13:12

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In India, now smiling is good thing at work. People thinks it's a good thing to smile. Smiling people always behave like immature. But I think this is not good. Eye contact in India is symbol of confidence person and always be honest. But some people think this things being irritated.

Submitted by todo77 on Sat, 09/10/2021 - 23:59

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in my country (Egypt) smiling is a sign of being comfortable doing a business , or buying from a shop.
and you can smile to strangers in public transportations or street and he/she will smile back to you
also we use smiling as a fast way of greeting

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Submitted by Hennadii on Thu, 17/06/2021 - 13:36

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Well, to be honest, I don't have much experience here. Once I worked with a Swedish guy - he was my director - but I don't think I could judge all Swedish people by him because he was an alcoholic. Sad story. But I worked in the past and work now in a Chinese company so I have some images about our cultural difference. It's not much but I have to admit sometimes it's hard to cope with my co-workers. I think, them too )) The most irritating thing in my colleagues is that in the Chinese company there must be someone who they blame when something goes wrong. I mean, if it someone's mistake - it's good to inform ones about that. But, at times there is no one's fault - just things went that way. In my country, we most likely discuss the situation to understand how we should act in the future. But in Chinese firm all starts from finding a fall guy. It's hard to get adjusted to that.