Business Etiquette and Cultural Sensitivity

Behavior and values are the source of every country’s culture and are the building blocks for developing business culture. Cultural influences, attitudes, and values vary across nations. The range of your knowledge of the culture of your business partners can be crucial when it comes to doing business or not.

Nike experienced this when they brought patterned leggings onto the market whose design was inspired by the traditional tattoos of the Maori and other indigenous people of the Pacific. The sportswear company soon faced a petition objecting to the product, on the ground they were a violation of these peoples. Nike was forced to withdraw the leggings.

Even when two English-speaking countries such as the USA and Great Britain are dealing with each other, cultural sensitivities come into play. This was the experience of pet nutrition company Hilton Herbs. Their product ‘Veteran’, for older pets, didn’t sell well in the US although it was doing well in other countries. They finally discovered that for Americans the word ‘veteran’ had connotations of war rather than older animals. The product is now called ‘Senior’ and is selling very well in America.

That such a large cultural divide can exist between two nations that share the same language, just shows how much wider the gap is between countries that speak different languages.

But cultural sensitivity is not only about speaking and writing. Body language is also very important when it comes to effective communication between two cultures. Bill Gates didn’t do his homework when he recently shook hands with the South Korean President Park Geun-Hye while keeping his left hand in his pocket. This is a sign of disrespect in South Korea.

Other examples are that in France, it is common for a man to greet a lady with a quick kiss on the cheek, even in a business setting. In China and India, that sort of familiar contact with business partners is frowned upon. In Saudi Arabia even offering your hand to a female colleague could be a terrible faux pas. Or staring into the eyes of your Chinese business associate while shaking his hand, can be regarded as a great insult.

Neil Payne, director of “Kwintessential” – a UK based translation company which also offers cross-cultural awareness training – warns that working with colleagues from different cultures can be a minefield. He says: “Whether it’s localizing your website or sending people to conduct business abroad, being aware of things such as cultural, religious, moral, behavioral and linguistic differences is crucial”.

It’s not about learning a local language fluently and knowing all the customs. You should, however, know when to keep your hands out of your pockets and be able to speak a few phrases of your business partner’s language. This shows respect and that you are taking the relationship seriously.

It’s possible to break down social barriers by learning local customs, this way you can gain trust and win business deals. So one of the most valuable investments you can make is to get to know your business partner’s basic social customs.

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