Surviving Cultural Differences In Global Business
Updated: May 3
Cultural differences can be a challenge for international business. Learning the customs of the country you are visiting before you go will help to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings, but it is also important to bring awareness about your own culture, so that there are no surprises along the way!
Culture is a set of values, beliefs, customs and behaviors that are common within a society. It includes the arts, music, cuisine and other traditions. When two people from different cultures meet for the first time they will often have to adjust their behavior in order to understand each other better. This can be difficult if you are not aware of what differences exist between your culture and theirs. If you are able to learn about their culture before meeting them then there will be no surprises when it comes time to shake hands or eat at the table together.
It matters in international business because cultural differences can be a challenge and cultural awareness is necessary to overcome these hurdles. For instance, someone who has never shaken hands using the so-called “Western shake” might be surprised when the other person does not respond to their gesture. Just understanding how a country’s people typically greets others is important to avoid any misunderstandings and embarrassment.
Differences Between Cultures
Reviewing some of the major cultural differences between countries may also help you to understand which country has particular norms that are different from yours. It will help to avoid any misunderstandings that could happen when you meet them for the first time. If we’re not aware of these differences and we don’t do our research before we travel, then there are many ways that our customs might offend someone else’s.
Psychology has found that different cultures place an emphasis on different things. Each country and society has a way of perceiving and interpreting what is considered right and wrong, using language, customs, societal rules about roles for men and women, types of families, how people from the community relate to each other etc.
The list below provides a generalized macroscopic overview of some societal cultural norms often encountered in different countries:
The United Kingdom places importance on honesty and fairness in order to maintain a harmonious society. They believe that people should have a say in decisions that affect them and that everyone has the right to freedom of speech. People are meant to be physically and emotionally strong, but not boastful. They believe in fairness and do not appreciate people who bring attention to their success. In terms of appearance, they value neatness over extravagance.
In the United States, emphasis placed on individual rights and freedom is strong. They believe strongly in justice and equality before the law. Individuality is important, but so is the sense of community and relationships with neighbours.
The American dream is about the pioneering individual or maverick pulling themselves up thus becoming successful and achieving a higher economic and social status.
It’s not necessarily about having power but rather creating opportunities to improve your life and the lives of those around you.
The culture of the Indian sub-continent is characterized by a strong family ethic, so there is a great emphasis on relationships between generations and between genders. People also place importance on community relationships.
This means that it can be difficult to make a direct request from someone, as they are more likely to give you an indirect answer. They often ask permission before making requests and it can take longer for them to reach decisions.
In Asia, the collectivist principle is strong but there is a wide diversity between countries such as China, Vietnam and Japan. In societies such as China and Japan, the pervasiveness of the group is very strong. For example, they are cautious when it comes to disagreeing with or contradicting others because they believe that this could create conflict or embarrassment within the immediate community.
They are more likely to accept opinions without questioning them too deeply if they have come from a figure of authority, even if it contradicts their own beliefs. They value politeness and self-restraint, which is often related to how the individual functions within the group.
In Thailand, there is a strong interconnectedness between people. They believe that harmony makes for a stronger community. Their sense of time is not as precise as it is in other countries because they see less urgency about performing tasks. However, they have a strong sense of responsibility towards others.
The Middle East is characterized by an emphasis on family life and religion, which are therefore given high priority. People are often more traditional in their values compared to the more progressive Western world. This means that male children are valued higher than females, for example. The perception of time is more imprecise in these countries. They value the group and so people do not like to stand out too much or draw attention to their successes.
On the other hand, people from Latin American countries tend to place greater importance on individual freedom and initiative than on how one relates to others. They value directness and openness. They also appreciate those who are not afraid to take risks because they believe that this could lead to future rewards, as long as it is achieved with integrity.
Reducing Cultural Misunderstandings In International Business
It is essential to be aware about cultural differences and similarities, and local norms so as to avoid misunderstandings – usual behaviours or actions will NOT be necessarily appropriate in another country’s. You want to avoid offending people or making them feel uncomfortable - sometimes the simplest things can have big consequences.
A greeting handshake often sets the tone for a relationship with a stranger. In some countries, the handshake is stronger than in others. This means that it can be a challenge for people from more reserved cultures to shake hands and not seem too brusque at first. On the other hand, if someone from a more tactile culture shakes your hand, this could be taken as an insult if you withdraw too quickly
Another example is, in France it is rude to to keep your hands under the table during meal time as it appears untrustworthy.
In Italy, on first meetings, it is brusque and blunt to skip small talk and immediately discuss the point at hand.(CulturalAtlas).
It is necessary to show respect for other people’s customs even if you do not understand them completely, so that you do not give offense or give the wrong impression especially in an important business setting. Although if it does happen, it’s best to be honest and make light of the situation. More often than not, people are accepting of genuine cultural mishaps.
It is not necessary to memorise every detail but being aware of some common differences is helpful. For example, it is important to broadly understand what constitutes appropriate behaviours around people of different genders or age group.
Although there may be some challenges along the way, overall it should be a positive experience for both parties to understanding different customs and to improve interactions.
Understanding the customs of other cultures is an important part of international business. It’s not enough to know that you’re visiting a country; it’s also important to understand how their culture might affect your interactions with them. Whether this means learning about greetings, table manners, or even something as simple as time perception, understanding these differences can help keep misunderstandings at bay and lead to more successful relationships in general.
Cultural sensitivities can be hard to navigate when sourcing or building a supply chain abroad. However, with guidance from partners and teams that have established roots and deep business relationships with local suppliers and manufacturers, a clear path of respect and co-operation can be made to ultimate business success.