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Chris Slay

Skills Provision

Chief Executive

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Navigating the choppy waters of cultural difference


What is considered polite in one culture may be considered impolite in another.

But as travel and communications become ever easier, HR directors working in multi-national companies would be well advised to acquaint themselves with at least some of these cultural differences and to understand how they can affect the way that employees conduct business.
Initial impressions of personnel, your organisation and the country in which it is based will all set the tone for future dealings so the idea is to create a favourable impression from the outset. As a result, HR directors should encourage staff to prepare themselves in a number of ways:
Basic do’s and don’ts
Employees can’t be expected to know every custom and ritual in any given country, but when they know they will be facing situations where cultural differences are inevitable, it makes sense to do some research. Knowledge of at least some basic ‘do’s and don’ts’ should form part of normal business preparations.
The internet can prove a useful source of information on etiquette, customs and protocol as can talking to colleagues who may have worked somewhere already. But liaising with an individual’s PA to enquire how they can be made more comfortable or speaking to staff at an appropriate embassy can also help.
It is useful for workers who have regular dealing with people in certain cultures to learn their language – or at least a few simple phrases and greetings, even if their pronunciation leaves something to be desired. Simply starting and ending a conversation with a polite phrase in the other person’s native language is always welcomed, shows interest and demonstrates that an effort has been made.
A basic understanding of other people’s religions is important too. For example, understanding that Muslims pray five times a day is important, particularly in lengthy meetings so that breaks can be organised discretely at appropriate times.
Food is another potential area of concern – caterers must be made aware of dietary requirements and ensure that food is discretely labelled. The aim is to ensure that people are not faced with things that they are unable to eat or subjected to implements that they are not familiar with.  
The unexpected
There will always be situations where cultural gaps appear unexpectedly and for which there has been no chance to prepare. If in doubt, employees always need to be sensitive to what is happening and take their lead from others’ behaviour and speech, for instance, removing their shoes when going inside a room and not using first names until invited to do so. It may also be useful to ask what it is best to do – but discretely.
Some further considerations to take into account:
1. Cultural mores: Workers should be circumspect on making comments, even if they find certain behaviours or situations strange or outside of their usual comfort zone. For example, some older Polish businessmen tend to kiss women’s hands on meeting them as a mark of respect and, as such, the gesture should be accepted graciously. Trying to initiate such an action, however, may be perceived as ridiculing them.
Similarly, Saudis require a relatively small personal space and therefore, by Western European standards, will stand close to a third party when in conversation. Even if employees feel that their personal space has been invaded, they should not let it show, however.
2. Conversations: Some foreign nationals such as the Saudis and Russians take their time in conversation and tend to talk about general day-to-day issues first rather than get straight down to business. Failing to follow their lead will be considered rude.
3. Patience: Most cultures value patience – even if things take longer than usual. For instance, decisions are usually made slowly in the Middle East and often only at the very highest levels so it is not advisable to try and undermine or rush the process.
4. Conservative cultures: Research has shown that business people in Japan tend to be conventional and conservative, generally taking fewer risks and preferring not to rock the boat. This attitude carries through into everything from the volume and tone of speech through to dress and general demeanour. Loud talking, raucous laughter, brash behaviour and the like will not be appreciated.
5. Divided by a common language: Employees should not assume that just because English is spoken, nationals will have the same ideas and/or values. Australians, for example, are often self-deprecating and use colourful language that would not be acceptable in other business cultures.
Other rules of thumb for workers abroad include:
  • Be professional at all times and dress and behave conservatively
  • If you are in any doubt whether to do or say something – don’t
  • Remember that a polite, respectful, sensitive and sincere manner is always appreciated and will ensure forgiveness if things go wrong
If employees choose to understand and embrace the needs of others, it shows that they value and respect other people and their background, which inevitably improves the business relationship. Sincerity, trust and an ethical stance are also integral to most business communities. Bear this in mind and the rest will follow.

Chris Slay is chief executive of international recruitment agency, Skills Provision.

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Chris Slay

Chief Executive

Read more from Chris Slay

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