10 MIN READ
Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas
Understanding the Impact of Cross-Cultural Differences
What could be wrong with sipping vodka in Russia? Or with eating with your left hand in India, or with patting the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a "job well done"?
In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense. They could even damage a relationship or ruin a major deal.
In fact, whatever culture you're from, it's likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world.
In this article, we'll discuss why it is so important to be aware of different cultural traditions. We'll also highlight some gestures and actions to avoid if you want to build good working relationships with people from these cultures.
The Importance of Cultural Awareness
It's not just professionals working overseas who need to learn cross-cultural business etiquette. Stop and think about how many different cultures you come into contact with at work.
Even if you work in your home country, your colleagues and suppliers could hail from other cultures. Your organization might decide to acquire or merge with an organization in a different country. And your customers, too, may be located in dozens of countries worldwide.
Our world's diversity is what makes it so fascinating. When you take time to understand the reasons for this diversity, you show respect for other people's cultures. And when you do this in a business context, you'll improve your working relationships and develop your own reputation.
Considering Cultural Differences
Consider the following questions when thinking about how a culture might differ from your own:
- What values does this culture embrace? How do those values compare with those of your culture?
- How do people make decisions, conduct relationships, and display emotion?
- How does this culture treat time and scheduling?
- What are the social rules and boundaries surrounding gender?
- How does this culture display and respect power? Which authority figures are revered?
- How do individuals relate to their employers?
- How do people in this culture communicate? How direct are they in what they say and mean?
See our article on cultural intelligence to learn how to work well in different cultures. This is a powerful skill that can be learned and developed throughout your working life.
Be humble. Whatever you learn about cultural differences, there will be local and regional variations that you won't know about. Admit that you're keen to learn, and encourage people to tell you about these variations.
Common Cross-Cultural Mistakes
Below we've listed actions and items that could cause offense in a variety of cultures and countries.
This list is not exhaustive! Please let us know about customs in your country using the "Ask questions or share your experience" link at the bottom of this article.
People abstain from eating and drinking certain foods for many religious and cultural reasons. Manners and expectations at the table can also differ.
- In Asian and Russian cultures, it's common not to talk during a meal because the food is the focus. Most conversation takes place after dinner. This isn't the case in, for example, Japan, where colleagues often discuss work after hours and while socializing over a meal.
- How much you eat can cause offense in some cultures. For example, your hosts in Russia, Greece, and Italy could be offended if you don't eat enough.
- Pay careful attention to how you use your chopsticks in Asian countries. Never use them in a gesture or for pointing, and never stick them upright in your rice bowl: this is an omen of death. Don't use them to spear a piece of food or to tap a glass or bowl, either. And never cross your chopsticks; they should always lie side by side.
- Try to avoid turning down vodka in Russia – when it's offered, it's a sign of trust and friendship. Vodka is served neat, and you should drink it all at once; Russians consider sipping vodka to be rude.
- Muslims, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists avoid alcohol.
- Hindus, India's largest religious population, consider it unholy to eat beef. Most are also vegetarian. Muslims and Jews are forbidden to eat pork (and, in addition, Jews do not eat shellfish), and Roman Catholics may choose fish rather than red meat on Fridays.
Body Language and Gestures
- In India, Africa, and the Middle East, people always use their right hand for greeting, touching, and eating. They consider the left hand unclean, so you should never use it for anything publicly.
- Several cultures consider crossing your legs to be rude. For example, in the Middle East and South Africa, crossed legs often show the sole of the foot, a sign of an ill wish or a bad omen. In Japan, it's considered rude to cross your legs in the presence of someone older or more respected than you.
- Certain gestures considered acceptable in one country can be highly offensive in another. For example, a "thumbs up" gesture is seen as a sign of satisfaction in the West, but is highly offensive in some Middle Eastern countries.
- In the United States, a handshake demonstrates that negotiations are finished, and that everyone is leaving on good terms. In the Middle East, a handshake is a sign that serious negotiations are now beginning.
- In many cultures, pointing is impolite, so it's usually best to avoid it entirely. If you must gesture toward something, use your entire hand.
It can be challenging to know which gestures are taboo.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid gestures until you're sure that they're acceptable. Watch how locals use body language, and follow their lead.
Clothing and Color
- In the South Pacific, Asia, Thailand, and Russia, it's courteous to remove your shoes before entering a home. This helps maintain cleanliness; but it's also a sign that you're leaving the outside world where it belongs.
- Some cultures pay careful attention to clothing. For example, it's important to be well dressed in Italy and the United Arab Emirates, and sloppy or casual clothing is considered impolite.
- The color of your clothing could also cause offense. For example, never wear yellow in Malaysia; this color is reserved for royalty. In China, you'll make a better impression by wearing red, which is considered lucky, than by wearing white, which is associated with death.
Personal space is the distance that you keep between yourself and another person. It varies widely between cultures.
- In the United States, many people prefer to keep one to two meters' space between friends and family members, and up to three meters between strangers and business associates. These preferences are similar in the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, and other European countries.
- The personal space requirements of Saudi Arabians are much lower: they often stand very close to one another, even those they don't know well.
- Chinese people and people from other Asian cultures are also typically used to less personal space than Westerners.
It's important to understand the personal space requirements of a different culture, so that you're not perceived as rude (by standing too far away) or pushy (by standing too close).
Personal space also includes touching. In Mediterranean and South American cultures, touching is an important part of conversation and connecting. If you don't touch others, you'll be considered cold. However, in Eastern countries, touching is often considered taboo, and you'll offend your colleagues if you pat them on the back or touch their arm.
Additional Tools and Models
As well as observing locals, you can consult books and use other tools to learn how cultures differ.
You can also read our Managing Around the World articles in the Team Management section to find out how culture affects working styles in specific countries.
Also, the book "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands?" is an invaluable resource of cultural dos and don'ts. Our Expert Interview with its author, Terri Morrison, includes additional tips for improving your cultural awareness.
Culture GPS, an iPhone app, can help you navigate cultural differences and behaviors. It’s based on the research of Geert Hofstede, creator of Hoftstede’s Cultural Dimensions, and allows you to compare the cultural characteristics of people from 98 countries.
Cross-cultural awareness is an essential skill, regardless of whether you're working overseas, leading a cross-cultural or virtual team, or dealing with a global customer base. Learn about the culture of the country where you're doing business to avoid cultural mistakes, and to demonstrate respect and understanding.
Research key differences in decision making, relationships, dress, food, dining, and social etiquette before working with or traveling to a different culture. Your hosts will notice your efforts, and appreciate that you took the time to learn about their culture.
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