cultural differences in communication

Customs and expressions vary all around the world.

From country to country, you’ll find hundreds of cultural differences in communication. In business, they can be extremely delicate.

All modern businesses need to be aware of these differences in order to build professional relationships.

In this post, we’ll guide you through them.

Why Cultural Differences in Communication Matter in Business

How do cultural differences affect communication in a professional setting? Read on to find out.

1. Body Language and Space

Body language accounts for around 55% of communication. In situations where there is a language barrier, that percentage becomes even higher.

That’s why it’s important to be aware of the type of body language you use in cross-cultural communications. If you get it wrong, you can end up unintentionally sending the wrong messages.

For example, in the US, it’s common decency to look someone in the eye when they’re talking to you. In Indonesia, the opposite is true. In fact, maintaining direct eye contact is seen as disrespectful.

Certain hand gestures can be offensive in different countries, too. While a thumbs up or a victory sign may seem innocent to you, it can be extremely rude to others.

This principle also applies to greetings. Not everyone likes to be greeted with a handshake. In some cultures, it’s completely inappropriate.

For example, for Muslim women, shaking hands with the opposite sex is forbidden. In Sweden, a woman won a lawsuit against a company that discriminated against her for this reason.

Be aware of how you take up space, too. In some cultures, it’s polite to leave a certain amount of distance between people, while in others this may make people uncomfortable.

2. Addressing People

First impressions are everything, so it’s essential that you get things right from the first point of communication.

That means addressing people in an appropriate manner. Find out whether it’s more acceptable to use someone’s first name, surname or title before reaching out to them.

Some cultures do this more formally than others. For example, in Thailand, it’s common for workers to address their bosses as ‘father’ or ‘mother’ when business relations are particularly good.

3. Language

Of course, dealing with business communications in a second language can be difficult.

When parties don’t share a common language, companies often hire translators to mediate communications between the two. However, this doesn’t solve everything.

You still need to think about what kind of language you use when you speak to people across different cultures. This is because some words and phrases can’t be directly translated into other languages.

You should be especially careful when using idioms in business communications. While their meanings may seem obvious to you, they can be completely baffling to non-native speakers.

In any case, it’s polite to try and learn at least a few words, like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in the other party’s language. They’re bound to appreciate the effort.

4. Conflict

Dealing with conflict can be a complex and delicate issue in any case. When you add language or cultural barriers, they become even more difficult.

It’s important to be aware of how different cultures respond to these types of situations. For example, in many Western cultures, it’s common to approach someone directly about a problem or disagreement you may have with them. However, Asian cultures can be very different.

In Thai, Japanese and Chinese business meetings, many subordinates wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with their superior. This is because it would cause their boss to lose face.

This concept may be new to some, but in Asia, it’s an underlying thread across all communications.

In these settings, if someone disagrees with you or is unhappy with your performance. You might not hear about it directly from them. To avoid causing either of you to lose face, they might talk about it with your boss, instead.

5. Giving Gifts

In some business relationships, it’s common to give gifts. For example, when you’re visiting a customer or supplier abroad, you might want to bring them a token from your country, or something to thank them for hosting you.

Before you do so, it’s crucial that you read up on the local etiquette with regards to gift giving.

Certain gifts may be inappropriate in some cultures. In others, the act of giving a gift at all may be a complete no-no. Do your research to avoid committing any social faux-pas.

In China, you’re likely to be asked what kind of gift you’d like before receiving one. In Japan, you can expect your gift to be reused once or twice before it’s accepted. In Saudi Arabia, expensive gifts are common, but elsewhere, they may be viewed as a form of bribery.

Once you’ve given or received a gift, what do you do next? This is another important step to think about.

In some cultures, you’re expected to open it right away, in the presence of the person who gave it to you. In others, it’s polite to take it home and open it in private.

6. Table Manners

If you find yourself having a meal as part of your business meeting, you’ll have to be aware of the local etiquette for eating, too.

Do you eat with hands or with utensils? Do you have your own individual dish or do you share lots of smaller ones with the rest of the table?

In some countries, it’s polite to finish everything on your plate. However, in others, this means that you aren’t satisfied. Sometimes, it’s more polite to leave a little food behind.

At the end of it all, who pays the bill? This one can be particularly tricky.

These are all things that you’ll have to think about when you’re breaking bread with business partners.

Take a Unique Approach

When you’re navigating these cultural differences in communication, it’s essential that you’re sensitive to the needs and customs of others.

This can be the difference between building and burning bridges with new business relations.

At iTech, we understand the importance of treating each project, transaction, and communication individually. That’s why we take a unique approach to each one.

Work with us, and we’ll make sure we get it right for you.