Cultural Differences in Business: How to Avoid Business Faux Pas

Cultural Differences in Business: How to Avoid Business Faux Pas
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The Traveling Salesman

The late Walburga von Raffler-Engel, a widely published linguistics expert whose specialties included nonverbal communication, had many interesting tidbits to share about social conventions. She was known to have advised businessmen that while sitting with an Arab in conversation to not cross your legs so that the sole of your shoe would be visible to your client, colleague or guest, or you may wind up insulting him.

“Some cultural differences are tolerated with ease, while others may cause deeply felt antipathies. Some differences are immediately apparent, while others are not overtly noticed and may create severe mistrust,” said von Raffler-Engel. “When we judge a foreigner’s behavior for a cause for mistrust, we may have simply misunderstood it.”



Another example of business faux pas: when Japanese people are deeply absorbed in listening to a speaker, they sometimes close their eyes. A wise Westerner knows that this is not a slight, that the man is listening intently and is not really bored or half-asleep.

In addition, in Mexico, business partners often practice abrazo, an elaborate ritual of embrace, that is considered essential for establishing and fostering a good relationship. A sensible businessman must never associate this with impropriety.

Wizened Instruction

Before companies send teams of negotiators to other countries, they may need to provide an extensive course on rituals and behavior indigenous to that country. As an example, if an Arab businessman agrees to meet with a female delegate, she may lose all credibility if she shows up for the meeting in a short skirt. This form of “immodest” attire would only serve to offend their host. And, interestingly, attire rules are applicable to men as well. If an American counterpart is invited into the home of a German or a Mexican businessman, he is expected to arrive wearing a tie and jacket, because anything else is rude. And if that American happens to comment on a special artifact in a Spanish home, expect that the owner will offer it up as a gift—but don’t accept it, instead, decline the offer graciously.

When NOT Talking is Better

There are several important points to be considered about differences in business culture, especially if one cannot study-up prior to the visit. The first is to know what to avoid talking about. “When I was in China, the first question I would be asked was my age,” said von Raffler-Engel. “Nobody in Europe would ask a woman how old she was, except maybe if she was a teenager.”


Shrewdness is the best word to describe the necessity of cultural differences, it means: showing or possessing intelligence, insight, and sound judgment, especially in business or politics. Another aspect of careful thought would be to comprehend social implications better. For example, von Raffler-Engel once said that when she had come here after living in Europe all her life, a pleasant woman offered her lunch in a conversation, saying, “You must come for lunch.” Von Raffler-Engel said the woman was taken aback when she replied, “What is the most convenient time for you?”

Practice Nonjudgmental Ideology

Not only are foreign habits different and unique to each country, but Americans in particular, should try to be nonjudgmental about another’s customs and conversation, in order to avoid business faux pas. Here in the U.S. when we open a meeting with an ice-breaker anecdote or a joke, it is readily accepted, whereas, in France, the audience will just merely be tolerating your behavior as they feel it is a waste of their time to be joked with during business.

When dealing with cultural differences in business, faux pas can be kept to a minimum with the use of an interpreter. An interpreter could go a long way to diffusing testy problems suggest experts—a translator can always preface his translation with a brief explanation of customs of the speaker’s country or omit the troublesome words altogether. And beware of “instant” first name familiarities. For Germans to be addressed on a first-name basis signals the beginning of a friendship and has no business in a business transaction.

Reference & Resource

Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures, Brooks Peterson (Intercultural Press, 2004)

Selected comments from a Newswise press release put out by Walburga von Raffler-Engel, 1992.

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