by Alysia Bartley

How Culture Affects Business – A Cultural Discussion about Successful Business Behavior

Many countries flag flying with sky

No one can dispute that culture affects how we think and how we act as individuals. It affects our relationships. So understanding the importance of culture, one can see that it definitely has implications for business.

  • Culture affects how we think and how we act as individuals on our job.
  • Culture affects our relationships with any of our business associates.

And with the globalization of business through the ease of communication and travel, understanding culture is increasingly important in today’s world. You probably have heard the expression that “… when in Rome, do like the Romans do.”

We need to minimize the possibility of cross-cultural misunderstandings so we can benefit from our differences.  This will result in happier work environments and better business relationships. Who knows, it may even lead to more tangible goals for the company like higher sales or increased profits.

So how do you go about understanding other cultures?

This may sound quite basic but you need to look at your own culture first. There are many areas that may affect how you relate to others.  You may not have considered some of these aspects before. But if you step back a little and think, you will see that each area is impacted by your own culture. Let’s look at some significant areas:

  • Age/Gender/Ethnicity and Religion
  • Body language and communication style
  • Personal appearance/dress
  • Eating and drinking traditions/etiquette
  • Entertaining and socializing/gift giving
  • Holidays
  • Language
  • Cultural assumptions/ethics/political correctness
  • Business organization/management style and leadership/business relationships
  • Work expectations/time management

When you work in an environment that involves others from various cultures, you need to be aware of your own culture in terms of each of these areas. This will help you to realize that other cultures may have distinct differences in one or more of these areas. When you work with individuals from another culture, you need to be aware of their culture(s). This will allow you to be more sensitive to other cultures.  This mindset will help you to appreciate other cultures and to view things (i.e. the situation or problem, etc.) from a broader perspective and not just from your viewpoint.

Age/Gender/Ethnicity and Religion

Age

For example, in some cultures people who are older are treated with extreme reverence. In business, they may be asked their opinion first.  They will be served first during business luncheons. They may be the leader and everyone else may need to follow their command or wishes. They may be placed on a Board of Directors or have a position in the company even though they may have formally retired.  They might be given a specific place to sit at meetings. You might need to address them a certain way.  However, in other countries, this is not the case.  Age might seem more like a handicap to progress. Older people may not be valued for their former contributions or for their wisdom. They might be asked to step down from a position or company and be replaced with someone who is younger, and even less experienced.  If they are looking for a new job, their age might be a deterrent to getting hired. They may not be included in decision-making.

Gender

In some countries, women are given equal status as men and there is no “glass ceiling” so to speak. Women are seen to be able to accomplish anything equally as men.  In other countries, women are still fighting for their rights in the workplace and for equal opportunities in education and other areas of society.

Race and Religion

In some countries, there are laws that state a company can’t “…discriminate against any race or religion”. Alternatively, this might not be the case throughout the world.  You need to be sensitive about how other countries relate to people of other races and religions.  It is not that you tolerate discrimination but that you understand the reasons behind different viewpoints and that you don’t push your viewpoint on others so they feel alienated and uncomfortable.

Understanding the specific differences among the cultures you work with will help you better relate to those individuals representing those businesses.  Likewise, all of the other categories listed above will also play a role in how you relate to others of different cultures. Somehow, you need to allow differences to exist in the working relationship so you validate everyone.  This is no small task, but one that is very rewarding.

Body language and communication style

Some research estimates that up to 90% of a message comes from body language.  Your facial expressions and gestures help convey the message.  They reveal what your feelings and moods are toward the situation.

There are some gestures that are similar across cultures like a smile to mean happiness or an expression of anger to mean that you are upset.

But there are cultural differences regarding eye contact. For example, if you don’t look an American businessman in the eye when you speak, it might mean that you are trying to hide something and that you are being dishonest.  However, if you look at someone in public too long so your glance becomes a stare – whether on a bus, walking on the street, in a restaurant, etc. – then this is not acceptable behavior either.

Physical contact like “touching” is viewed differently in other countries, as well. In much of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America it is common to have a conversation between members of the same gender and have frequent contact. There might be a pat on the back, an arm around the shoulder, or touch on the upper arm.  However, individuals who are from cultures that are more reserved might find this situation uncomfortable.

The important lesson to learn from this is that we should not interpret what we see through our own cultural view and standards. A suggestion would be that when you are visiting, working or living in a country that you spend some time observing people. Watch how they meet and greet each other. Look at their faces and see how expressive they are when they speak. Observe their gestures.  Learn to listen. Sharpen your listening skills.

There are also some global business standards when it comes to communication.  Small topics about the weather, sports, art and cultural history are usually appropriate to discuss. However, if a country has a particular sports defeat or if the historical discussion becomes political, be sensitive to the conversation. It is generally advised that you not swear in your own language or any other language.  It may be hard to use humor in your conversation as others may not laugh at the same things as you. So again be sensitive to this. Don’t comment negatively about anything from someone else’s culture. This includes such topics as religion, politics, or sexual matters.

Another form of communication that differs greatly among cultures is the use of business cards.  Usually business cards include the company name and website address, your name with appropriate gender title – Mr. Mrs. Ms. Dr., job title, address and e-mail, and phone and fax numbers with area codes.  If you have business cards in dual languages, you should pass them out with the appropriate language on top. It is also an appropriate gesture to look at the card before putting it away. You should not write on the card, bend it, or leave it behind. You would not want to hurt someone’s feelings.  You should remember that in some cultures, that a person’s title is just important as the person’s name. It is important to know how to address them.

Other aspect of communication is “meeting and greeting”.  These situations are very different in other countries. But nearly in all countries are a special set of phrases with the exchange of names and some sort of symbolic physical gesture like the handshake or a bow.  Again, it would be helpful to observe how others are greeted when meeting for the first time. Americans are used to introducing themselves first, asking a few questions, and generating a conversation.  This may seem quite different for your culture, but it is perfectly acceptable.

Personal appearance/dress

Clothing choice is influenced by a lot of forces besides fashion.  What we wear is also influenced by the wiser world of big business, politics and religion.  Today, more than ever, it is difficult to distinguish between formal and leisure clothes.  Whereas, three piece suits and dresses with nylon hose was the norm for several decades in the American business society, corporate casual is gaining more acceptance. It would be helpful to you to observe how others dress and to also look at a company handbook that outlines the appropriate clothing for their employees. However, you should also be aware that in many cultures, the working population may prefer to keep their work attire separate from their leisure/home attire.  Even though in most cultures, people have an understanding to “…not judge someone by their physical appearance”, it would be wise for you to be knowledgeable about local standards. Select your clothing carefully when meeting someone for the first time in a different country. Try to be practical, respectable, and in good taste.

In addition to a sensible choice in dress, your clothing should be neat and clean. You should be well-groomed. Global standards recognize a suit and button-down shirt for men with an optional tie. For women, dress pants, a skirt or dress are acceptable.  Knee-length or longer skirt/dress and a modest blouse are a good choice. However, be aware that dress pants for women may not be the acceptable dress everywhere. Shorts and jeans are probably not acceptable. Again, observe how others dress to give you a better idea of what is the status quo.

Eating and drinking traditions/etiquette

How and what you eat and drink with your family and friends may be different from what is acceptable while eating and drinking as a business person. Again, the best advice is to observe others. For example, at a dinner in South Korea or Japan, you would fill other’s glasses, but not your own.  And in England, you would eat your scone after your sandwich but before your cake.  Even the gesture of ordering and serving fast food over a sit down dinner may be viewed by some cultures as not taking the time to value a relationship.  Furthermore, you might not like some of the dishes offered. There may be religious taboos. There may be many other reasons. However, if you are going to sample the food and you think it just might not appeal to your taste buds, then you might consider cutting it up into a small piece and at least tasting it.

Table manners also differ.  Again, watch the natives and try to imitate what they do. If you just don’t understand something, ask politely (i.e. which hand should I cut the meat with, or how to I eat such and such, etc.)

In the case of social drinking with business associates, and if a drink is offered, then it is probably acceptable to have a drink. Be aware that probably no one likes individuals who are loud, aggressive, and offensive. In some cultures, women may be judged differently if they have more to drink. It may also be inappropriate for women to offer a toast. Be sensitive to various religions that forbid alcohol.

You should also ensure that you have “good manners” at all times. Some mannerisms don’t really matter to foreigners and it is the effort that counts. However, it is always best to be considerate. Watch the volume of your voice. Watch what you say.  Don’t criticize someone’s culture or country. Also it is important that you try to learn something about the person’s culture, country, and business.  You should not appear to be ignorant about some basics concerning these areas. Also, it is important not to be self-centered and arrogant. It is never a good reflection on you if you insist your country, culture, or business is superior to others.

It is also important that you either explain or apologize if you “break a rule”. Genuinely thank people for their hospitality. It might be helpful and considerate of you to learn a little of the language. It is also important to reciprocate if you can with compliments, favors, hospitality, etc.  Be gracious. Say “thank you” as if you mean it even though something might not be in your taste.

In conclusion

I know this all might sound overwhelming to you. As you begin to open your mind and appreciate other cultures, you will more naturally begin to understand more of their uniqueness.  The important thing is to realize that there are many differences to how people live.  Culture affects how we think and how we act as individuals on our job. Culture affects our relationships with any of our business associates.

In a subsequent article, I will address some additional areas regarding culture to help you in your business pursuits:

  • Entertaining and socializing/ gift giving
  • Holidays
  • Language
  • Cultural assumptions/ethics/political correctness
  • Business organization/management style and leadership/business relationships
  • Work expectations/time management

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Write to me and share any comments you have on this article using the comments below. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have about North American culture.  There are many articles on the site that address the ESL learner so make sure to check them out.

About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.