HR & Management

Cultural faux pas that can sour your business relationship

6 min read

27 May 2014

Organisations working in a multicultural environment have a number of concrete challenges, from time zones to currency fluctuations to managing holiday coverage. But business relationships across cultures can also introduce misunderstandings.

These misunderstandings can be further exacerbated when different cultures do not recognise or choose to ignore other culture’s values, beliefs and expectations.

Some cultural mistakes happen due to a genuine lack of awareness. It’s hard to understand a cultural rule if you are not aware of it, especially if the other culture is also too polite to tell you directly that they are uncomfortable with your attitude or behaviour. This may be further complicated if you come from a culture that communicates directly, i.e. you say what you mean and mean what you say rather than relying on nuance. You may simply not be picking up the subtle message being sent to you.

What cultural faux pas are commonly experienced across cultures and how might they damage your business relationship?

The concept of face

Perhaps one of the more difficult concepts to understand across the cultural divide is the concept of face. Nobody likes to feel embarrassed. Some cultures may shrug off an embarrassment; others may joke about it. But in face cultures, a perceived embarrassment is often seen as an insult or as a personal attack on the dignity, reputation, and even worth of an individual. Non-face cultures generally move on and mostly forget an embarrassment. Face cultures may move on if they have received a swift and sincere apology, but they rarely forget.

Relationship priorities are often a challenge across cultures

For someone who has flown thousands of miles to meet a client, customer or business partner and is then kept waiting, the feelings of frustration, impatience and the perception of wasted time can cause the visitor to rush into the main topic of business once the meeting convenes, with little regard for small talk or other social courtesies. However, the host may have been attending to any number of things that were seen as important to address straight away – it may have been another business matter or even a personal matter. Either way, the motivation to preserve the other relationship by delaying the appointment is prioritised. The visitor’s perceived insensitivity to basic manners once the meeting begins is a reinforcement of these differences.

When the time comes to get down to business, i.e. the task at hand, further challenges may be encountered.  

Work style expectations can also be a source of cultural friction

Faux pas can include pushing someone to be creative, think outside the box, or take initiative in an environment where the only initiative they are expected to take is to react well to whatever their management tells them to do. 

The perception of someone’s ability to control their own environment can present opportunities for many cultural faux pas

There may be cultural differences in attitude as to who is responsible when things don’t go according to plan. One culture may expect an acknowledgement when things go wrong where another culture may consider the unfortunate outcome to be caused by something out of their control – anything from God’s will to bad luck to the inevitable.  Directly challenging some of these very different attitudes can be a major faux pas in some business relationships.

Cultural faux pas can also damage a business relationship if basic etiquette in both cultures is ignored. This can include anything from serving offensive food to raising a topic that is taboo. For example, offering a Muslim food containing pork or alcohol, especially if the ingredients are concealed, can be problematic. Discussing sensitive political topics may make your business partner uncomfortable, sometimes just by the way you word your question.

Gift giving is another area where the cultural balance may not always be easy to get right

Colours, numbers and symbols may all represent special meanings that you may not have intended to convey. For example, sending a specific bouquet of flowers to one business colleague may be appreciated; a second colleague may consider it to be sexist; and another may wonder who died. Refusing gifts in some cultures is highly offensive, even if you are reasonably sure that the gift may violate your country’s anti-bribery policies. Other gift faux pas may include how and when you receive a gift, who gives and receives, and when the gift is opened. It may seem like complicated business etiquette but these business relationship skills remain important, especially in traditional cultures.

The best way to avoid cultural faux pas is to learn about what values are important to your business partner. Whist we may not all have the same values across different cultures, showing respect and good manners will take you far across the cultural divide, and will usually preserve your business relationship, even when business gets difficult. On the other hand, insensitivity, arrogance or complete ignorance can be the difference that can cause a business relationship irreparable damage. Don’t make this your ultimate cultural faux pas.

Declan Mulkeen is Marketing Director at Communicaid a culture and communication skills consultancy.

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