We’ve all done it. Visited a new country, not got up to speed on the cultural norms and then made a faux pas. But while a cultural misdemeanour gives you something to talk about with your friends, a lack of cultural awareness when visiting other countries, could cost you big in business.
Simon Taylor is a senior leadership consultant for Kaplan, with years of experience in international diplomacy having worked for the Ministry of Defence and as a lecturer at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. Simon has many stories about navigating through the sensitivities of different countries.
One such story was when he was delivering a training session to a group in Kuwait. “There were a lot of big players in the room,” he said. “They weren’t engaging. I pointed to someone and said, ‘You sir, please, what are your views?’, but it didn’t work.
“We took a break. Someone told me, ‘There’s a problem with your delivery. You’re pointing – that’s a big no-no and nobody is going to give their opinion until the most senior person gives their opinion.’
“I relaxed a bit and it started going well. I sat down and rested a foot on my knee and exposed the sole of my foot. I noticed a couple of people staring at the way I was sitting. I later learned that’s a big insult.”
Simon believes doing some simple homework beforehand can avoid a lot of unnecessary offence.
Different countries will work in very different ways and finding out about local customs and approaches is key to showing you can work well together, he added. “Study hierarchical culture and what overall power is in the room and play to that. In Japan – the most powerful individual will bow the least, the least powerful person in the room will bow the most. You need to know how to go through that greeting phase.
“In Japan, social is key – you will spend a lot of time talking about anything but business. In Germany they get straight to it – that’s just the way it’s done.
It might seem like a minefield but it all comes down to basics; learning about the culture and the person and thinking about you can build commonality, says Simon.
And although this approach might seem fuzzy, Simon believes that businesses lose money time and time again because people do not appreciate the simple the value of getting to know people. “Warmth is absolutely key for long term influence.” he said. “By not doing this, you have really lost the ability to motivate people and build relationships.”
This kind of awareness needs to be extended to organisations that have global workforces too, he said. “I’m not saying you should learn the language. But go and learn a bit about the culture. I see so many people who have leadership roles across different cultures but they don’t know anything about what somebody’s life is like in that country.
“For the people who say they don’t have time to do this, I say, this is part of your job!”
How does your knowledge stack up?
Take our quiz to see how many important body language signals you already know…and pick up a few tips to avoid causing offence on your next business trip.
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