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Business and Cross Cultural Differences: The new Oil and Water?

Updated on March 14, 2012

Easily Influenced: A Study in Culture


What comes to mind when the word culture is thrown into conversation? Does it conjure images of different races and customs? Does it bring up images of art and music? That answer may be very different depending on what part of the world the conversation is being held in. Across the globe there are hundreds of different cultures and sub-cultures with their own traditions, customs, style of dress, laws and unwritten rules. Non-verbal communication is often one of the most overlooked cultural differences.

Many times American business people find themselves in “hot water” because of non-verbal cultural cues they may have missed. For instance, Americans have an unhealthy obsession with time and view tardiness as a great disrespect, however in some places it is normal to be a half hour late getting started. Another issue that can cause problems is eye contact. Even as young Americans, these businessmen are taught to maintain eye contact as a sign of respect and listening, but in Japan, too much eye contact could be threatening and cost a large business deal. Things that may seem harmless enough can be very offensive. For instance, cross your legs in a meeting with Middle Eastern clients and you can certainly say good bye to a merger or give a knife as a gift to a Korean and forget about friendship, it has been severed.

Many things have different implications in different cultures, and hand gestures are one of those things that are delicate subject matter. Think about how offended Americans get at the middle finger gesture, in Italy an open palm could have the same aggravation, in Arabic countries a thumb touched to all the fingers is very derogatory. Remember those times as a child when mom used to say “ Don’t point, it’s not nice?” Turns out she was right, many countries frown on pointing with fingers, some places use the head and body in lieu of the index finger. Even counting is different in other countries, to American the index finger signals the number one, but in Germany it means two. There are many differences to be aware of.

Knowing the cultural norms and being able to properly interpret international nonverbal communications will be pivotal in global operations which are the businesses of this modern world. Imagine how much more respected you will be if you avoid common American faux pas in global markets. Being in tune with business partners is important regardless of cultural background and the ability to read people has said many presentations and financial deals throughout history. Taking the time to be educated on these nuances will show a sense of diversity and commitment to the business. These skills may even be the deciding factor of who actually goes overseas for the meeting in the first place. Having a wide array of skills and talents regarding communication are the key to success in any professional environment, especially in cultural differences with today’s extreme politically correct society.

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