How to Avoid Cultural Missteps When Doing Business With Other Countries

Four expert tips to avoid confusion and conflict in multicultural communication.

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By Gwen Moran


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As workplaces become more diverse and more companies do business globally, the opportunities for cultural missteps are also increasing. Cultural diversity expert and executive coach Gayle Cotton says today's many forms of communication have created many ways for missteps to happen. "If people are communicating with different cultures, they very often find out that certain things they may have said or done may not have been received in the way that they intended," she says.

Not everyone can be versed in every culture, but in her new book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication (Wiley, 2013), Cotton shares some important guidelines to help facilitate multicultural communication and avoid confusion and conflict.

1. Familiarize yourself with cultural basics.
If you're going to be doing business with someone from a different country or culture, aquaint yourself with the basics in advance, Cotton recommends. A simple online search for the location or culture with the words "cultural competence" will yield several web sites with information and resources to help you understand cultural norms and cautions. Georgetown University's National Center for Cultural Competence also has many resources.

2. Pay attention to your gestures.
In-person or on video conference calls, simple gestures and stances can mean wildly different things in different cultures. For example, sitting casually with a foot resting on the opposite knee is the equivalent of showing one's foot, which Cotton says is a highly offensive gesture to some people from the Middle East.

While hugging or kissing is a common greeting in some cultures, touching -- even the simple act of shaking hands --may be verboten, especially between men and women. Choose a more formal demeanor with good posture, feet on the floor or crossed at the ankle, and hands folded or at your sides if you are unsure of what is acceptable and what's not.

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3. Take cues from clues.
Whether in person or online, take your cues from the other person's communication. Cotton says people's use of chit-chat, even in electronic correspondence, before they start talking about business is a clue that the individual is social and that you shouldn't jump right into business conversation. If you cut them off and dive into correspondence about work, they are going to feel like they haven't had the time to interact with you in the way that they need to before business talk starts, Cotton says. That could hinder the relationship.

4. Start reserved.
It's usually best to keep business interactions toned down and professional until you get a sense of what the other person expects, Cotton says. Avoid slang or informalities, and carry yourself the way you would if you were meeting a dignitary. You can always adjust to a more animated, informal or affectionate manner, but more conservative people may be put off by anything less than a reserved and respectful manner.

Related: How to Do Business in China

Gwen Moran

Writer and Author, Specializing in Business and Finance

GWEN MORAN is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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