Building Bridges - page 3


Arrived at his first overseas posting the executive asked his local assistant to provide him with a ten minute speech in the local language, so as to impress his hosts at the party being given in his honour.

After the event an angry executive sent for his assistant.  "What was the idea of writing a half-hour speech for me?" he yelled.  "It was clear I was boring the pants off everyone."

Confused, his assistant replied: "Sir the speech was only ten minutes long.  I merely gave you the two extra copies you requested."


Cultural Differences in Business  

Global interdependence continues to increase enormously as does the challenge that confronts organisations in seeking to achieve mutually acceptable and beneficial outcomes in culturally diverse regions.  It is essential that leaders of such organisations as well as their staff become educated and oriented to global differences if they are to survive in an increasingly competitive commercial  environment.

In the globally expanded business environment of the 21st century, cultural intelligence is required. [10] A culturally intelligent business person is one who

1.    Recognises that different cultural groups conduct business and organise themselves in ways that are uniquely their own.  This is even more the case when such groups are abroad.

2.    Appreciates why this is so.

3.    Has the ability to influence people and organisations having different cultures from one's own in ways that are respectful of their cultural codes while being mutually beneficial.

4.    Has or acquires at least a second language and a feeling for the cultural attributes of that language.

5.    Acknowledges the different degrees of familiarity or deference due to different cultural groups.  A business meeting with Americans may be conducted in a fairly easy-going environment; this is unlikely to be the case in a meeting involving, for example, a Japanese team.

6.    Is able to distinguish between cultural myths and current realities.   This is of importance in respect of both his own culture and that of others. 

7.  Remains flexible to change in the global business environment, acknowledging that past strengths can be future weaknesses.


"All my wife has ever taken from the Mediterranean - from that whole vast intuitive culture - are four bottles of Chianti to make into lamps."              Peter Shaffer - Equus 


What needs to be learned? 

The first thing to appreciate is that you are not in a “foreign” culture.  YOU are the foreigner.  Your own culture is the “foreign” culture. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to try and do things the way they are done at "home" rather than learning and adopting the methods by which they are done in the country in which you are a guest.  

Most cultural misunderstandings result from failure to acknowledge differences in culturally based communication styles.  There is no such thing as a universal form of communication. We do not all communicate in the same way; we do not obey the same set of rules; we do not use the same body language styles.  Many of the simple gestures we make can be completely misinterpreted by someone from another country. Committing  a cross-cultural gaffe may be rewarded with silence or anger and will almost inevitably diminish one's credibility.

(With acknowledgements to

Desmond Morris, in a book devoted entirely to the origins and interpretation of gestures[11], describes how 20 key gestures are capable of completely different meanings in 40 European countries.  Undoubtedly they might be even more misunderstood if the sample were extended to the rest of the world.   A simple finger tap to the side of the head can mean "Stupid!" in one place and "Brilliant!" in another.  The meaning of a gesture towards oneself with fingertips can vary from "Come here" to "Go away"!

There are a number of essential questions to which all people choosing to live or work in a “foreign”* culture would profitably learn the answers.

►  How should people of various ranks be addressed? 

►  When is it acceptable to use first names? 

►  Should you address others by their official business title?

►  How should business cards be exchanged?

►  What about gifts?

►  What gift is appropriate and when should it be presented?

►  How important is punctuality?

►  What is the length and time of the appointment?

►  If dining is involved, what is appropriate as far as food and beverages?

►  What about entertaining--should business be discussed?

►  What clothing is appropriate to wear on differing occasions?

►  Who picks up the tab?

►  Are there specific table manners that need to be observed?

►  How does body language differ in this culture?

►  When is direct eye contact appropriate?

►  What kinds of gender differences in body language need to be respected?  


Some differences between occidental and oriental cultures in business negotiations

Aspects Occident Orient
     Behavioural traits Aggressive Respectful
     Decision-making Individualistic Group
Ability to compromise Flexible


Responsiveness Immediate


Value standards Youth and achievement

Age and seniority

Interpersonal interaction Business first Relationship first
Communication Outspoken Reserved



A world survey was conducted by the UN. The only question asked was: "Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world." The survey was a huge failure...



In Africa they didn't know what "food" meant.


In Eastern Europe they didn't know what "honest" meant.


In Western Europe they didn't know what "shortage" meant.


In China they didn't know what "opinion" meant.


In the Middle East they didn't know what "solution" meant.


In South America they didn't know what "please" meant, and


In the USA they didn't know what "the rest of the world" meant.




[10]  We recommend Brooks Peterson's book Cultural Intelligence, reviewed in the Book Review section of this issue of Nurturing Potential.  Click here for the review.

[11]  Gestures by Desmond Morris, Jonathan Cape, 1979

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LINKS TO SITES OF INTEREST - Appreciating Cultural Differences Makes Good Business Sense by Carolyn Luesing gives some good examples of cross-cultural gaffes to be avoided. - the Colorful Flags website has some excellent suggestions for breaking-down cultural mistrust, with emphasis on the use of language.  The site is a rich source of associated articles.