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How being aware of the cross-cultural differences can help your business abroad

Flora Tromelin is a public affairs and communication leader with over 20 years of experience in management, diplomacy, marketing, communication, protocol and project/event management, as well as 6 years of experience supporting local initiatives for non-profit organizations. She was born and raised in France and is a former U.S. military spouse, mom, and travel addict. She met her husband, a now-retired officer in the U.S. Army, during her tenure as Chief of Protocol to the U.S. Ambassador to France and Monaco. She is the founder of FCT Strategies, where she utilizes her broad experience and expertise to provide consulting services.

The globalized world we live in today enables businesses to operate across borders. Access to traveling, worldwide shipping and the remote capabilities we possess today allow collaboration between people from different countries and cultures. When trying to establish and grow your business internationally, it's therefore important to be aware of more than only the basic legal- and visa issues. Being aware of the cross-cultural setting can help you avoid misunderstandings, communication issues and build trust. Owner and CEO of FCT Strategies LLC, Flora C. Tromelin, specializes in this.

Flora, a French native, has over 20 years of experience working as a global leader and advisor for the U.S. Federal Government where she was responsible for cross-team communication and management of cross-cultural international events. She has led multicultural teams of up to 35 people and managed events of up to 5,000 attendees. Currently, she offers consulting services through her self-founded company, FCT Strategies. Their services range between everything from event and project management and organizational management to cross-cultural communications and protocol/etiquette.

In the next paragraphs, Flora will discuss why it’s important to be culturally aware and fill us in on the major differences that you can expect when doing business abroad.

Why is it so important to do your research before doing business with someone from a different country and culture?

“Every country and culture are so different. Things that work with some people don't necessarily work with others. Therefore, it’s important to learn a little bit about the country and its culture before having your first conversation with a prospective client. What are the most striking differences between the two countries and what should you do or not do to avoid misunderstandings? Or what could be seen as an insult during a business meeting? For example, in some countries, like France and Israel, disagreement and debate are seen as something positive, while in the United States, it’s counter positive.”

How can a cultural advisor help you figure this out?

Most people are usually aware of the translation issue and language barrier when they do business abroad, but they often oversee the cross-cultural setting. A lot of misunderstandings happen due to the lack of knowledge of cultural differences. Talking with a cultural advisor can for that reason save you some big surprises and money. They will have the expertise to help you understand your international team and provide recommendations on how to go about the business encounter.

What are some of the main differences you have seen when it comes to how countries do business?

“The company structure differs a lot. In some countries, business is built on individualism while in others, they value the team aspect much more. For example, the French and Spanish business cultures are very similar and are located somewhere in the middle ground; not too authoritarian but without being totally participative. Then, we have the United States and the United Kingdom who don’t only share a language, but common values when it comes to office life as well. Independence and autonomy are highly valued, but managers’ offices are accessible which makes interactions between employees of different hierarchical levels easier. Finally, we have the Netherlands and China whose business cultures are almost diametrically opposed. The Dutch culture is participative and individualistic, while the Chinese’s is authoritarian and collectivist. Supervisors in China like to have full control over their staff, but the Dutch managers promote independence and autonomy for their employees. Offices in the Netherlands tend to feature more fluid spaces that encourage equality and a focus on well-being amongst their employees.

Even meetings are held differently, and, in many cultures, they prefer to have a nice dinner before discussing any business. So, not being aware of how to build trust through food, drinks and in some cases, how you dress, could mean loss of trust, a missed opportunity or even end of your business partnership.”

What are some etiquette rules that you have come across that a lot of people might not be aware of? Or things that are natural in most countries, but completely the opposite in others?

“One thing that people might not know, especially in the Western world where tipping is common and a lot of the time expected, is that in Japan, tipping is actually considered to be insulting and bad manners. No matter if it’s to a taxi driver or a server. Another thing that varies by country is how you show enjoyment of food. In the Western culture, we try to eat as silently as possible, but in China, it’s the complete opposite. If you are greeted with a good meal, you slurp for all you’re worth to show appreciation and to compliment the chef. Overall, Asian countries differ a lot from the Western countries, especially when it comes to table manners. As another example, in most countries, you pour your own drink when you’re thirsty, but in Japan, that is considered greedy and anti-social. To not be considered rude, it’s proper to pour for other people at the table first and they will then reciprocate the gesture. Another one that will surprise a lot of people is that in Venezuela, if you show up on time, or early, to an event (especially if food and drinks are being served) you are considered too eager and greedy."

Body language is also a massive part of communication, and if I understand it correctly, what it says depends on what culture you're from? Can you give us a few examples of this?

“Yes! Facial expressions, gestures and even the degree of eye contact vary greatly across countries. For example, many cultures use their arms freely during conversation and are an integral part of communication in Italy, Spain and South America. Meanwhile, the Nordic countries find it hard to tolerate gesturing with arms, associating it with insincerity and over-dramatization. In Japan, gesturing with broad arm movement is considered impolite.

Nodding your head generally means agreement or approval. However, for the Bulgarians, nodding up and down signifies no. Good eye contact is expected in the west, especially in Spain, Greece and the Arab countries, but the Japanese are embarrassed by each other's stares and only seek eye contact at the beginning of a conversation. Lastly, sitting cross legged is common in North America and some European countries, but showing the sole of your shoe to another person is viewed as disrespectful to people in Asia and the Middle East.”

As you can tell, there are not only vast differences between how countries do business, but what their etiquette and body language look like as well. Doing your research and talking with a cultural advisor can help you avoid misunderstandings and feel more confident in your business encounters

Author: Bianca Bostrom l January 25, 2022

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