International etiquette? It’s a minefield!

Sometimes what should be simple and straight forward isn’t. Things that in one culture make perfect sense do not translate into others. The global business-place means that we are often going to find ourselves working alongside people physically and virtually. We need to understand what it is that they want and mean and to do this we have to understand that people from different cultures sometimes confound our expectations in terms of behaviour. similarly our behaviour and customs can seem baffling to them.

Hand Gestures

hands250Hand gestures have massive potential to cause offence. For example, while I might casually point at someone, in some cultures this is a highly offensive thing to do. Some groups regard it as normal to use hand gestures, in others it is not considered appropriate, and can be seen as rude. Being clear that some cultures are comfortable with people ‘talking’ with their hands whilst others are not and being open to peoples preferences means that you are aware of what you can do to minimise others discomfort. You may want to acknowledge this at the start of a meeting.


Some people are very open to giving out their telephone numbers or email addresses and they may expect the same from those they come into contact with. A request for this information leaves others feeling uncomfortable. The context is important here. For example, at the end of an interview UK applicants rarely ask for their interviewers’ email addresses but in other cultures it is expected that the interviewee will follow up their interview with a thank you email. Check before you go to interview what is expected of you. The careers team can help with this and read our earlier blog on this.


Beautiful gold present box with red bow and ribbons on white backgound

Again, this is an area fraught with problems. In some cultures gifts are given and received on a regular basis. It is seen as an expression of gratitude. In other cultures this may be perceived as bribery. Refusing a gift can be highly offensive to the giver but to the recipient there can be consequences to accepting a gift and they may need to disclose this internally in their place of work.


Surely no problems here? Sorry, this can be a minefield! You try to contact someone but are unsure of gender so how do you address them? You want to refer to their job title? How do you find this? If in doubt you can explore the gender of names though websites, or job titles by the work directory or maybe you can try to keep things gender neutral?  In the West many companies expect staff to be on first name terms but to address customers as Mr or Ms. The idea being that the customer will demonstrate how they wished to be addressed. In other cultures using professional titles and terms such as “Respected Mr X” or “Honoured Ma’am” will be the norm. if your contact is expecting a very deferential title and you use a first name you can cause real offence.


translate250Confusion can always arise when terms and documents are translated. Ask a native speaker you know for help. Where this isn’t always possible be aware you cannot rely on things such as Google Translate and that errors  arise, systems like this cannot pick up necessary nuances. If your efforts lead to misunderstandings, apologise and learn.

So…my advice?

Open a dialogue with people where you and they feel comfortable. Ask about their communication preferences. Try to avoid assumptions about cultures and understand that each individual will have their own style or preferences that come from their own experiences and interpretation of their culture. Be sensitive – Good luck


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