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 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.

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Worksheet91.17 KB

Language level

C1 English level (advanced)

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


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,
The LearnEnglish Team

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


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


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


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


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


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

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.

Submitted by Andrea Valencia on Wed, 26/05/2021 - 15:39

I found in many people here in my country and in other countries of the world, that they show many racist attitudes, as if they were a superior class of humans, because of the color of the skin, kind of face, languages, money earned, etc.
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Submitted by danisep on Fri, 16/04/2021 - 02:50

I think that here in Latin America is unpolite and it seems rude when you are meeting someone and most in the environment of business and you are serious and don't smile. The smile is a sign of friendship and good vibes.

Submitted by Emy104 on Thu, 04/03/2021 - 01:21

Actually, I have a problem with Eye contact cause I don't like people to stare at me for a long time. I have already experienced that situation before, I had an interview and the interviewer kept looking into my eyes the whole time, it was embarrassing to me, but later I've known it's vital to keep your eye contact during a presentation, interview, and public speaking to get the attention and confidence of your audience or clients.
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Submitted by Jamil Harumi on Thu, 18/02/2021 - 18:52

Generally speaking, I would say that we the Mexicans (and most Latin American countries) are used to doing business in an atmosphere of friendship and informality. We like our peers to feel welcome by using first names, in an environment of mutual respect.

Submitted by Ehsan on Sun, 07/02/2021 - 08:44

Unfortunately, I have not traveled to another country and I do not know much about their culture.

Submitted by yokh on Fri, 08/01/2021 - 10:32

Hello Peter, Would you please explain me why in task 2 , the last answer was "false ". What I understood from the text that the writer was recommdending to keep cultural differences in our minds when doing international business 6. The writer recommends keeping possible cultural differences in the forefront of our minds when doing business with people from different cultures. False Thank you for your feedback

Hello yokh,

The writer warns against being too conscious of cultural differences, suggesting that these can cause problems. In fact, rather than keeping differences in the forefront of our minds, the writer says:

...knowledge of the potential differences should therefore be something we keep at the back of our minds.



The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Riza on Sat, 02/01/2021 - 11:56

I am really fascinated by foreigners' way of behaviour, how they are polite all the time and at any situation. As I was grown up in a Russian speaking country most people here are more reserved and modest to express their gratitude or any feelings. And sometimes British or Americans politeness and smiling faces might confuse me. However, nowadays things are getting better as we are communicating and learning from each other all over the world!

Submitted by emanuellyfurriel on Mon, 28/12/2020 - 13:43

I find it rude when people stare at you, in my opinion, it's disrespectful and uncomfortable.

Submitted by Sekar Arum Dhani on Sun, 20/12/2020 - 01:48

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.

Submitted by reem mohd on Wed, 09/12/2020 - 18:45

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

Submitted by hanayuki on Mon, 05/10/2020 - 07:54

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


Submitted by Abdulhadi94 on Thu, 01/10/2020 - 15:20

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

Submitted by antinaoki on Mon, 17/08/2020 - 02:41

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.

Submitted by Saturnin_gboyou on Sun, 19/07/2020 - 08:22

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

Submitted by RoRoAs on Wed, 08/07/2020 - 15:40

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.
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Submitted by OlaIELTS on Tue, 12/05/2020 - 16:38

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.

Submitted by Angel e on Thu, 02/04/2020 - 05:48

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.

Submitted by hrahmani on Wed, 19/02/2020 - 15:42

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!
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Submitted by Steve Zarv on Tue, 07/01/2020 - 05:39

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.

Submitted by Dennis Ming on Sat, 08/06/2019 - 12:59

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

Submitted by Hossein1156 on Thu, 23/05/2019 - 19:56

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 Kirk The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by RobRoy on Wed, 20/03/2019 - 16:29

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.

Submitted by Michael Kreuziger on Wed, 20/02/2019 - 18:10

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. Regards Michael

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