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Business Etiquette Across the Globe: How to Navigate the Culture Shock

  |   CultureShocks Blog

The world continues to become a smaller place as digital technologies transcend oceans and dissolve borders, allowing corporations to forge international relationships and partnerships that would otherwise have been missed opportunities.

These modern-day miracles do not come without their complications, however, as business etiquette can greatly differ from region to region. Culture shocks from around the world can often lead to potential business associates embarrassing themselves and completely botching deals.

These mistakes come in many forms, whether it be an improper greeting, social media conundrums, or producing inadvertently disrespectful marketing materials; this makes it vitally important to have a keen understanding and perception of local business customs.

In an effort to help business leaders avoid succumbing to cultural formality mishaps, here are some of the most prominent business culture shocks from around the world.


International Styles of Communication


International globe with hands showing culture shocks around the world

Proper communication is the basis of every relationship, business or otherwise, and needs to be effectively managed. If a company representative is unaware of a certain territory’s style of conversation or negotiation, it could be detrimental to the way foreign business leaders view them and their brand.

In American culture, it is considered normal to ask about a business prospect’s day and ‘how they are doing’. This is often viewed as a way of showing that they are interested in both the personal well-being of an individual and of their business. Countries like Spain are also quite receptive to discussing personal matters as family and relationships are highly valued.

In the United Kingdom, however, delving into more intimate exchanges is somewhat frowned upon. Additionally, these folks are less inclined to retain eye contact during a dialogue; a tendency which would be considered disrespectful in the States.

Similarly, countries like Germany and Japan are all about business. Asking personal or emotional questions to business colleagues in Japan is inappropriate and makes one look foolish.

More than just the type of questions that are asked, it is also necessary to be mindful of the verbosity that is used. In places like Japan and India, the word ‘no’ is viewed as rude and disrespectful; it is best to use phrases like ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly’.

Body language also plays a huge role in international business communications. Much as the Brits have no time for ‘niceties’ around personal conversation, they also prefer their personal space, similar to Americans and Chinese business people. If corporate dealings are taken to Brazil, however, you may be in for a bit of a culture shock as Brazilians are accustomed to physical contact during conversations. It is seen as a sign of trust between business partners, so they may end up standing closer than what feels comfortable for some; take this as a good sign.

Navigating the conversational terrain can be tricky business so it is best to study the practices of the place you will be visiting as well as learn some of the countries phrases.


The Art of an On-Time Arrival


The Art of an On-Time Arrival

Punctuality is another valued trait in American culture. If an individual is late to an important meeting, they are viewed as disrespectful and unreliable.

Business folk in Germany and Australia share a similar viewpoint. These people are extremely hard workers and their time is perceived to be valuable. If you are late for a meeting in Germany, you may have jeopardized the deal. While these cultures value punctuality, this is not the case in other parts of the globe.

In Italy, punctuality is more of a casual ideal. In this part of the world, meetings frequently get off to a late start. If there are any hard deadlines that must be satisfied, be sure to make this clear to avoid coming off as boorish.

France and India are similar in this regard, as things can typically be delayed due to a late arrival. Despite this, staying late is a common practice.

The same can be said for business meetings in Brazil; they may get started late, but often can last longer than expected. To avoid being seen as rude or disinterested, be sure not to excuse yourself early.

On the other hand, places like Morocco, Nigeria, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia place zero importance on early or punctual arrival at meetings. In most of these countries, it is completely acceptable to arrive 30 minutes or more ‘late’ to a meeting. In Saudi Arabia, it’s even considered rude to look at one’s watch during conversation.

As a best practice, avoid tardiness no matter what area of the world you are in. It is better to play it safe than to risk offending a potential business partner.


Global Gift Giving Formalities


international gift etiquette. person giving a present with both hands

Another culture shock from around the world comes in the form of gifts. Supplying a business acquaintance with a gift is perceived differently in different cultures, and even the types of gifts that are given could be misconstrued.

For example, it would seem appropriate and somewhat obvious to give a watch as a business gift. In China, however, this represents death. Additionally, black, blue, and white wrapping paper should always be avoided. When giving a gift in China, present it with both hands, as is customary.

In Japan, this courtesy is expected but also needs to be presented properly. It is rude to attempt to give a gift that is unwrapped. It is also advisable to carry the offering in a bag to avoid appearing to show off. Moreover, gifts should be discreetly presented toward the closure of a meeting and presented with both hands, as is done in China. Some great items to give would include cuff links or high-quality alcohols like cognac or brandy.

Places like France and Italy are less enthusiastic about presents. In these countries, gifts are typically only exchanged after business partnerships have long been established.

In the United Kingdom, gifts are not typically given. The only scenarios this takes place in is when visiting someone’s home; in which case, bring a small gift, like flowers, for the hostess.

Saudi Arabia, however, has a very different stance on gifts. For these folks, exchanges only occur between extremely close colleagues and are often extravagant items. Be wary, however, as if the present is for a Saudi man, gold and silk would not be acceptable; silver is much more appropriate.

No matter which country you are headed to, it is important to understand what role gifts play in their culture and what type should be offered. It would be awfully awkward and potentially disastrous not to present a gift to someone who is expecting one.


Conducting business with foreign partners can be a complex and intricate dance. It is necessary to properly research ethics and rituals, learn a bit of the language, and properly understand the customs of the region. Culture shocks from across the world vary greatly from region to region and should be respected and honoured. If you fail to show esteem, grace, and reverence towards individuals in a land foreign to your own, your chances of gaining a new business partner are greatly diminished.

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