Make international business gaffe-free

Many cultural differences are small, but failure to appreciate their nuances easily causes offence and could stall a budding international relationship.

June 30, 2011   by Mark Drake

Which of these four international gifts is probably inappropriate: a handsome carved knife; a purebred dog; a beautiful clock; or a finely made compass? Or when you’re invited to dinner and you bring flowers as a gift, should you buy odd or even numbers, and what colours should you avoid? Many cultural differences are small, but failure to appreciate their nuances easily causes offence and could stall a budding international relationship.

Cultural approach is all about high and low context. High context, which emphasizes relationships, is strongest in places such as China, Japan, Arab and Mediterranean countries.

Low context, common in Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the US and Canada, attaches less importance to relationship building. The differences are illustrated by the importance attached by traditional cultures to co-operation, harmony, patience, saving face, avoiding giving offence and decision making by consensus, versus western impatience, a preference for punctuality, moving things along, making practical decisions and saying what is meant.

In both cases success hinges on appropriate non-verbal, verbal and written communication.

Non verbal communication can create many problems. Gestures are particularly tricky (the “OK” or thumbs up sign is highly insulting in some parts of the world), and facial expressions are easily misinterpreted across cultures. Ideas about personal space also vary – when in doubt be reserved rather than intimate. There are unwritten rules about gift giving, which is more important in Japan and many Asian countries than in the West; about the handling of business cards, considered an extension of personality in Japan; and the use of first names, rarely used outside the family in Japan and Germany.

Verbal communication has its own pitfalls. In North American we generally say what we mean, readily accept argument or debate, and are prepared if necessary to say “no.” In Japan, euphemisms like “perhaps” or “we’ll see” are the preference.

In certain cultures participation at meetings or conferences is not common. Different languages make comprehension a major challenge, and learning new languages is a great asset to the international trader – even if it’s just a few sentences.

Language challenges
Avoid slang, acronyms and other colloquialisms. Humour helps develop relationships or relaxes a tense situation, but it’s a two-edged sword and does not translate easily. If visual aids are used, keep text to a minimum.

The same rules apply to written communication, and aim for clarity in translations, especially in contractual agreements.

Other cultural influences include religion (from statutory holidays to dress and gender issues), age or place in the hierarchy (generally respected more in Asia than in North America), basic values (the need for harmony and consensus, avoiding giving offence or losing face), and attitudes to the importance of property and to materialism. Success comes from observing and from adaptating to circumstances, with a genuine interest in new cultures and building new relationships.

The answers to the two questions are:

1. A compass is the most appropriate gift, especially for a Muslim: it can be used to check the direction of Mecca.

2. Showing up for dinner with flowers is tricky: they can denote death, or bad luck. Avoid white flowers in El Salvador, yellow ones in Mexico, even numbers in Japan and odd numbers in China.

For more information on culture and related topics visit (Going Global – Cultural Aspect of International Trade) and (Centre for Intercultural Learning).

Mark Drake is former president of Electrovert Ltd. and the Canadian Exporters’ Association. E-mail

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