How to deal with cross-cultural business etiquette

The world really has become smaller; people travel extensively to what were once unbelievable or glamorous places. Early baby boomers, now retired, routinely go on cruises to Polynesian islands or jet off to South America to ascend Machu Picchu…and the same is now true for business travellers.

I think it is fair to say that the ever expanding technology and continued evolution of the web has enabled an exponential increase in communications (and therefore business) between countries.

Some companies have set up satellite service departments in different countries (e.g. India and South Africa) to cut overheads as local workers earn less than their western counterparts. And, of course, opportunities for women, standards of health and safety, security and working conditions can differ widely from those in the UK.

This influx of travel to new and distant places has brought with it its fair share of cultural faux pas, as people try to adapt to different ways of living and working, sometimes with success but often with disastrous consequences!

So what about these differences between our standards and values and those of the countries we enter as guests whether on business or holiday? Should we simply accept other countries’ norms? Or, by questioning differences, are we are imposing our (subjective or superficial) standards and expectations?

Cultural differences

Did you know…

  • In some cultures there are lucky colours, such as red in China and unlucky colours, such as black in Japan. Some colours have certain significance; green is considered a special colour in Islamic countries and some colours have tribal associations in parts of Africa.

  • Many hotels in the USA or UK do not have a room 13 or a 13th floor. Similarly, Nippon Airways in Japan do not have the seat numbers 4 or 9.

  • Images are also culturally sensitive. Whereas it is common to see pictures of women in bikinis on advertising posters on the streets of London, such images would cause outrage elsewhere.

And there are many other cultural differences going on in every day life that may seem alien to the ‘guest’ visitor. In some countries, organisations employ teenagers to make tea and coffee on demand for administration staff. Is this cheap (or child) labour or is it an acknowledgement that these youngsters need the income to help make their families’ ends meet?

My experiences in India, a culture based on hierarchy, is that although teenagers may be referred to as ‘tea boys’, they are ‘sons’ to managers and ‘brothers’ to admin staff - in my opinion emphasising a respect for who they are and the economic role they fulfil within their family.

In the Far East, staff routinely bow when talking to a manager and managers’ decisions are never questioned or double checked, however unlikely they may sound. Such behaviour differs between countries - in Korea staff bow from the waist whereas in Japan there is seemingly endless head nodding. In Hong Kong everything appears (deceptively) very western but staff wouldn’t dream of double checking a decision from a manager, even to be helpful.

The flip side can be the apparently dismissive attitude displayed by local managers towards non-management staff. Such behaviour can be perceived as bullying - but in some countries staff accept this as normal and managers are expected to behave like this to emphasise their authority. How comfortable do westerners feel overseas when they are exposed to this type of behaviour? What about when local colleagues refer to senior managers as Sir or Madam or bow to them - do they follow suit?

In other countries there can be gender issues - around the recruitment, pay, promotion and treatment of women generally. There can also be restrictive work/dress codes for women overseas (that said, in the UK women wearing trousers at work was routinely proscribed twenty or thirty years ago). Is this acceptable? What about when it’s multinational corporations whose names are internationally recognisable and who operate elsewhere where they apply significantly different standards? Should they apply UK/US standards?

Many organisations working in the Middle East adopt different working days/hours in accordance with local custom. And some expatriate staff enjoy the holidays and celebrations of both their home and host countries - for example, in a US corporation operating overseas, US ex-pats would expect to observe Thanksgiving as well as major local festivals.

But how far should an organisation operating overseas follow the rituals/celebrations of the host country? For instance, not conducting business or arranging business lunches during Ramadan when most people don’t eat during daylight hours?

So where does the ‘guest’ stand in another country?

Sadly there is no definitive answer - only more questions! Individuals will need to evaluate the situations and make decisions/behave accordingly. At a basic level, at heart it is about managing risks. Failure to properly manage these risks may have adverse and unintended consequences.

Fundamentally the key is to ensure that anyone travelling abroad, whether for business or for holiday has taken time to do some research and has the confidence to ask questions from their host. The aim is not to unintentionally offend anyone with words and behaviour which may seem innocent but could lead to dire consequences - a break down in (business) relationships. As Bob Hope so aptly quoted ‘Your ignorance cramps our conversation’.

Sneha Khilay is a regular contributor to Start Your Business magazine. She is a leading equality and cultural diversity expert and is the founder of Blue Tulip Training. For more information visit