Working abroad?

Working abroad?

Exchange tips about expat life on our forums
Access expert articles on life abroad
Meet international friends at regular events
Share hobbies through interest-based groups

Cultural Differences in Business

All of us global minds have been confronted with cultural differences at some point. They often lead to amusing misunderstandings, but can also have a serious impact on your career. We help you avoid cultural conflicts at work and leave a good impression.
Often, the language barrier is not the biggest communication problem for expatriates.

In this article, we will focus on cultural differences in communication and in valuing time before briefly touching on some general guidelines. You may also be interested in our articles on international etiquette and international business culture, or in our cross-cultural communication section.

Differences in Communication

If you have traveled a lot before, you know that there are huge differences in communication between people from one country to another. In some cultures, people are loud, direct or even blunt and tend to interrupt others during a conversation. In others, people are typically soft-spoken, use flowery or indirect language and wait patiently for others to finish their sentence.

During a business meeting, these differences are likely to come to the fore. Try to adjust to the way your business partners communicate, e.g. when addressing and greeting your business partners, your boss and your colleagues. Always use last names and titles unless you are invited to do otherwise.

Hierarchies may have a great influence on the communication style in your new surroundings, so it is important to keep an eye on this. The most senior business partner may be the one who is making the decisions at a meeting. Failing to acknowledge their status within the company or to greet them with due respect can leave a bad impression.

Valuing Time

Cultural differences also become apparent in differing concepts of time. Is the scheduled time frame for a meeting set in stone, or does it allow for some flexibility? Will you jeopardize a business deal by arriving late, or is it perfectly acceptable to let family matters, for example, take precedence over business appointments?

A popular example: Everyone would agree that Germans are well-known for their punctuality. In many African and South American countries, however, scheduled appointments are often treated like a general guideline rather than something one has to strictly abide by.

Seeing how some cultures are more time-conscious than others, it is always best to be punctual at first and simultaneously adopt a relaxed attitude towards time management. Even if you are always on time, your business partners may not take the appointed time for a business meeting as seriously as you do. After a while, you will learn to adjust to your business partners’ unique pace at work.

Cultural Differences Aside…

There are always a few generally valid guidelines you should pay attention to in order to make a positive impression in the business world. Being dressed appropriately for the occasion and arriving at a business meeting well-prepared are two very obvious ingredients for your success in international business. Whether you are in France or in China, your business partners will appreciate your efforts to make a good impression, regardless of cultural differences.

When you fly abroad for business purposes, jet lag is a factor that needs to be taken into account as it might inhibit your professional skills significantly. After all, who makes a great impression when they are sleep-deprived and stressed out?

To mellow the effects of jet lag, try to arrive a couple of days early to give your body enough time to adjust. It may help to set your watch to the new time before you leave and to act accordingly. If at all feasible, this could involve slowly adjusting your sleeping and waking hours to the new time zone. This may seem trivial to you, but a well-slept and alert traveler is much better equipped to deal with cultural differences than someone who is underslept and exhausted.