Global Business Etiquette: Which Habits to Trash, to Treasure

Posted: Feb 06  |  By: Janet Berry-Johnson

Today, more executives are conducting business beyond their own borders, dealing with people from different background and cultures. Before you do business in other countries or attend meetings abroad, it’s a smart idea to familiarize yourself with workplace customs in that country and take into account cultural differences. After all, the last thing you want to do is miss out on closing a big deal because of some etiquette blunder.

There are plenty of lists of business etiquette around the world, but those lists are often based on anecdotes. Rather than memorizing a list of rules, you should strive for cultural intelligence (CQ).

The Center for Cultural Intelligence defines CQ as

“the capability to relate and work effectively in culturally diverse situations. It goes beyond existing notions of cultural sensitivity and awareness to highlight a theoretically-based set of capabilities needed to successfully and respectfully accomplish your objectives in culturally diverse settings.”

Fortunately, you don’t need a handbook to become culturally intelligent. You just need to know which habits to trash and which to treasure when working across borders. Here are a few places to start.

Habits to Trash

  • Going with your gut. Good gut instincts might serve you well at home, but those instincts come from experiences that won’t necessarily apply when interacting in different countries and cultures. Before you respond to different situations, take a moment to consider how your preconceptions and experiences influence your responses. Realize that your usual way of working might not be the best approach.
  • Making assumptions. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. Assumptions are often based on a set of shared beliefs and values. If you don’t have that commonality – as you won’t in global business dealings – assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and disagreements. Remember, your perceptions influence your assumptions. For example, certain words may not translate across languages and cultures. When in doubt, ask!

Habits to Treasure

  • Being adaptable. Lists of cultural norms in other countries should evolve – the cultures they reference certainly do. The world never stands still; cultures change and adapt as they come into contact with technology and other cultures. So don’t make assumptions about the people you’re working with. Be open and willing to alter your perceptions and adjust quickly to new circumstances.
  • Being curious. Only by staying curious can we and expand our view of the world. You’ll usually find when working with people from other cultures, showing a willingness to learning will open many doors while a lack of interest may be perceived as disrespectful or dismissive. Ask questions and pay attention to the answers.
  • Being patient. Don’t expect results as quickly as you might be accustomed to getting them at home. Relationships and business dealings may move slower in other parts of the world. For example, Western cultures tend to view time as linear and structure their work based on milestones and deadlines. Failure to meet those deadlines is taken as a sign that you have a poor work ethic. In other cultures, time is not perceived the same way. They might place more value on doing things right than meeting deadlines. Take your time to find out how people from other cultures like to work. Some understanding up front can save you time and frustration in the long run.

Anyone can learn to be culturally intelligent. It takes motivation to learn and a willingness to think about cultural differences and their impacts. A high level of CQ can play an essential role in bridging cultural divides and ensuring you and your organization can navigate across cultural boundaries.