Supply chain 26 May 2016

Understanding differences in business culture: Top tips for new companies

Taking clients out for lunch is an important part of developing business relationships in Hong Kong

Cultural training is now mandatory for employees of many major corporations upon being assigned to work abroad. Expert in intercultural and language training for global business talent management firm Crown World Mobility, Alyssa Bantle, offers her top tips for small business owners thinking of expanding to foreign soil.

Starting a business at home is tough enough, but expanding your firm overseas for the first time can bring a myriad of unforeseen cultural complications.

How do you communicate in meetings? Should you use first names straight away in Australia but not in Poland? How do you handle global conference calls? And if an Indonesian asks about your weight, are they being friendly or rude? It can be a big surprise to find out how many cultural differences exist.

When understanding cultural differences in business, knowing the correct way to greet colleagues and formal guests is the kind of important information you can find with a quick Google search.

However, the ability to understand and adapt to business and social norms when working away from home has become a skill all of itself.

Cultural training is now compulsory in some major corporations because it’s as important as being able to do your job, and for those looking to start a business it should be an even bigger consideration.

Too many startups fail early because owners simply can’t communicate, and too often small firms wait until there is a breakdown to look at communication, but it’s usually too late.

Here are some top cultural tips for working in a variety of countries. Don’t forget, they are just as relevant on global conference calls long before you arrive in your setup destination. You may be surprised just how different we all are.


Tip 1: When giving feedback, be as direct as you can. Concentrate on what needs to be changed or improved and point that out.

Instead of “Perhaps you could consider…” say something more direct such as “Some of this is not right, please change xyz”. As rude as that might sound to us, it isn’t for Germans. Keep in mind that feedback which seems polite to British people might be confusing and even seem dishonest to Germans, who value direct communication.

Tip 2: Be careful with using British humour. Germans use humour much more sparingly in professional situations. Also, irony is often lost on Germans, as well as many other cultures.

British people joke as a way to get someone on their side, but sometimes it’s easy to achieve the opposite when doing this abroad.

Tip 3:  Don’t be surprised if after your presentation, a German audience applaud by knocking on the table repeatedly using their knuckles!


Tip 1:  Be a bit more formal initially than you would in the UK. Brits tend to be too quick to use first names, whereas Poles tend to be more formal, and would like to be called “Pan” or “Pani” for some time.

Tip 2: The business calendar is shorter than in the UK, and operating around it can be a big challenge. Bank Holidays can often be on a Wednesday or Thursday and it is common for people to take a day or two or even the whole week off before the holiday.

Always check for business holidays before planning a trip to Poland, and then check with who you want to meet to make sure they will be at work.


Tip 1: Brazilians tend to associate English-speaking people with the US, and might be a little confused when faced with a different accent and sense of humour than expected from an American.

Tip 2: Business meetings are often scheduled about two weeks in advance. Make sure to reconfirm a meeting with a call or email a day or two before it is scheduled to take place.


Tip 1:  You will almost certainly be offered snacks or tea at business meetings.  It is good practice to wait for the host to drink (or eat) first or to specifically ask you to eat – before starting to drink.

Tip 2:  Indonesians may not hold back on some topics often considered rude in the UK. These could include your weight, marital status, age and religion. Plan an answer you are comfortable with ahead of time.

Hong Kong

Tip 1: Most communication, even if the person is in the same office as you, will be done via a computer screen on an instant messages platform.

Do not take it personally if people prefer instant messaging to a phone call or face-to-face conversation.

Tip 2: Taking clients out for lunch is really important. Locals often take out clients to celebrate Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year all in one meal.

Going for informal drinks after work as you would in the UK does not work well in Hong Kong. It would be seen as an official work event, no matter how informal you want to make it.


Tip 1: There’s a more social approach to business in Australia. Meetings at the office can continue socially at restaurants or pubs. There may be even be personal invites to people’s houses. This is just as important as the main meeting to build relationships and get to know clients better.

Tip 2: Dress style is largely “smart causal”. In many cases, wearing a business suit will not be seen as a sign of respect as it might be in the UK.

It takes real understanding to make a success of business abroad. The differences in business culture around the world can have a huge impact on working relationships and networking in foreign countries.

There are no guarantees with doing business in other cultures – no matter how much knowledge you have. People and cultures are always full of surprises, so consider cultural differences as opportunities to explore – be curious about what they mean and how they developed. Make sure to truly observe what people say and do, and ask questions about what you experience.

Alyssa Bantle is global curriculum manager and intercultural and language Trainer at Crown World Mobility.

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