Cultural communication barriers include the subtle and not so subtle ways different cultures communicate. If you work with international clients, business partners, or employees (or you hope to), it’s important for you and your entire team to understand what cultural differences exist. Understanding these differences will help you break barriers to intercultural communication, and it will demonstrate you put genuine effort into getting to know the people you want to work with.
In this post, we’ll discuss cross cultural communication barriers and how your business and team members can become more educated and prepared for conducting international business.
Cultural Communication Barriers
The growing global economy and the rise of remote work has made it much that much easier to work with international customers, clients, and businesses. While it may be easier to connect, you still need to take time and care educating your team on the many varying cultural business practices.
Do you shake hands or bow? Do you need to take off your shoes before entering the workplace? And how do you address people for the first time?
Both verbal and nonverbal communication across cultures differ in subtle to glaring ways, and if you don’t recognize these differences, you could wind up offending a client or losing a business deal. Plus, it’s just polite and kind to first learn about the people you want to work with. Don’t push your own cultural values on others, and always strive to meet those you work with at least halfway.
Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication
While many international businesses use English to communicate, not all communication is verbal, and there are a number of subtle differences in the nonverbal communication of different cultures. The standard greetings we’re used to, such as a firm handshake with eye contact, could be unrecognizable or even offensive to another culture.
Pay close attention to someone’s body language. It’s difficult enough as it is to interpret a coworker’s nonverbal communication when you do share their culture. A gesture or posture you’re used to interpreting one way may mean something completely different in another culture.
Recognizing and reacting appropriately to another person’s body language plays a critical role in how you will be received and the relationships you will be able to build. lt takes research, patience, and care to become comfortable interpreting nonverbal communication. Drop your assumptions, take the time to learn, and when in doubt, ask others what’s expected.
Types of Cultural Differences
How People Are Greeted
Forms of greeting vary widely between cultures, but common themes include giving deference to those in authority and not crowding someone’s personal space. In Japan, people prefer a bow to a handshake, and the lower you bow, the more respect you demonstrate. A great deal of emphasis is placed on one’s body language in Japanese culture and in Japanese business practices, so how you say something is just as important as what you’re saying.
Handshakes are typical greetings all over the world, but there are differences in how you shake someone’s hand and whose hand you shake. Many countries in Europe, such as Germany, England, and Russia, prefer a firm, right-handed handshake with eye contact. In Hong Kong, soft handshakes with lowered eyes are appreciated.
Bowing and handshakes are both common forms of greeting in China, so observe the people you’re with before deciding on what is proper—and accept any business card respectfully with two hands.
In South Korea and India, bowing is more common, but handshakes are acceptable among men. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a long and steady handshake is acceptable between men but not between a man and a woman. If you’re greeting a member of the opposite sex, place your hand over your heart, smile, and nod.
A kiss on the cheek is common in France and England, but not on a first meeting. In Belgium, business professionals that know each other well greet each other with three air kisses. Proper protocol dictates that the first kiss is placed next to the right cheek, then the left, then the right again. Not giving air kisses, or giving them out of order, could both be considered disrespectful.
How People Are Addressed
Many cultures all over the world appreciate deference to authority and formality when speaking to senior staff and management. Wherever you are in the world, when in doubt, use the person’s formal job title or their family name. Pay close attention to the people around you to determine what’s appropriate.
What It Means to Be On Time
What it means to be on time for a meeting is different all over the world. In Australia, although Australian businesses are more informal and relaxed with their greetings, it’s considered deeply impolite and unprofessional to be late.
Some cultures are much more relaxed about punctuality, putting a higher emphasis on breaks and wellness over strict timelines. Mexican, Spanish, and Italian cultures are more likely to take a relaxed approach to punctuality.
Spain is known for coining the siesta, a post-lunch afternoon nap. A siesta is a relaxing and rejuvenating break after lunch that sets people up for the second half of the day. It’s also a great way to postpone work during the hottest hours of the day. While siestas aren’t regularly practiced today, the idea provides insight into their priorities and laid back approach.
It’s quite common to wear shoes indoors in North America and Europe, but this is not done in Japan. Japanese culture requires you to remove your shoes when entering someone’s home, traditional restaurants, tea ceremony rooms, traditional shops, and temples. Failing to do so is considered extremely disrespectful.
Take careful care to observe the practices of those around you. If you’re unsure of whether or not to remove your shoes, look for slippers, a shoe shelf, or a locker near the entrance, as these are good signs you should be removing your footwear.
The way a business is organized can vary widely across cultures, with some preferring a strict hierarchy and others preferring a more relaxed organizational structure where everyone is treated equally. Even just in the United States, organizational structures and what’s expected vary dramatically, though many businesses are generally moving toward a more relaxed, cooperative business structure.
In Eastern societies, such as Japan, a strict hierarchy and deference to one’s superiors must be observed. Managers and business leaders command respect and expect to be greeted formally. However, businesses in Scandanavian countries, such as Denmark, appreciate a more informal, flat business structure that emphasizes cooperation and collaboration.
Gifts are expected in China if you have a business meeting, but they will not be accepted enthusiastically. It’s common for a gift to be politely refused up to three times before finally being accepted, so do not give up.
Providing Cross Cultural Training
As an individual, endeavor to learn all that you can about the other cultures you work with or may work with in the future. If your company doesn’t provide cross cultural training, seek it out yourself, and do your own research. Don’t jump into an international relationship blind without first understanding business customs and what will be expected of your interactions.
Businesses that conduct work internationally should provide cross cultural awareness training to ensure the entire team is up to speed. Training will help your team navigate cultural barriers and better understand both verbal and nonverbal communication in different cultures.
Cross cultural training can be beneficial for teams that don’t conduct business internationally as well. You are very likely to come across people from different cultures within the United States, and understanding where they are coming from will help you establish strong, empathetic relationships. What cultural differences exist inside your workplace? Are they understood and appreciated by all in the office? Can you name any specific diversity practices? Do you provide diversity training?
💡 Understanding and accepting human differences is just as important inside the workplace. Learn how to spot a lack of diversity in the workplace and signs of discrimination at work.
💡 Ageism at work includes stereotyping or discrimination against people or groups based on their age. Learn how to manage generational differences in the workplace.
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