Maybe you’ve just started working for a company whose head office is in another country. Or maybe you’ve been assigned to work with a remote team from across the world. Or maybe your company is entering new markets, or taking on new partners from overseas.
When you start working in a big international company, you may feel stressed and uncomfortable. You’re not sure how to behave, and how to communicate with your teammates. There are some universal business rules you might want to follow, and you’ll be just fine – for the most part.
However, you might find yourself in social and business situations you are not sure how to behave in. They usually involve cultural differences, which you might not even be aware of. How do you make sure you don’t offend anybody?
Particularly if you’re at the beginning of your professional career, there are some common rules you may not know just yet. Trust us – no one will get mad at you even if you do something wrong, as long as they see you’re trying! In most places, English is the universal language international teams communicate in, and that is why when working in an international team, try not to exclude anybody, and always try to speak a language everybody understands.
Even if you’re not sure how to do something or how to behave, just ask! There really are no stupid or obvious questions. Asking questions makes you appear engaged, curious, and eager to learn, and it maybe just help you get the information you need to fit into the culture better and feel more confident.
2. Get to know your teammates’ background
If you work with people from all over the world, they might approach work differently than you, and this might be the case for many different reasons - the culture and habits of their country as well as their company, as well as family commitments and other responsibilities. Getting to know them better will be rewarding in itself, but will also help you collaborate better. They will definitely appreciate it!
There are so many different aspects of cultural differences - different communication styles, different dining etiquette, different negotiation rules. There is no way to describe all of them. You must be observant and perceptive. Notice how employees around you act, and how they interact with others.
And now, let's talk about what not to do
The truth is, you will learn most of these things intuitively. You just need to put a little bit of effort into it!
1. Personal space
You may have noticed that people from different countries have different understandings of the ‘personal space bubble’. That is, how close to someone should you sit or stand when having a conversation? Keeping the right distance does not depend on cultural environments only, but also on personal preferences. Keep a distance you feel comfortable with, but also observe your interlocutor. You will be able to tell if they feel comfortable too by paying attention to their body language.
Fortunately, people have studied this in detail - so check out this handy country-by-country list! If you’re from Argentina, you may need to tone down the tango when doing business in Romania.
2. Business dinners and dining etiquette
When going out for a business meal, a few universal tips can help you avoid a faux pas.
- Pay attention to what your host/client orders. You might want to order something similar, especially in terms of the size of the dish.
- Hold your utensils in the most comfortable way for you. If you don’t know how to use chopsticks, perhaps avoid trying for now!
- If you are someone’s guest, wait to sit until you receive a signal to do so.
- Have some general conversational topics and questions always ready.
The one thing you should hold onto is no matter what nationality your partner is, be professional and always stick to business-related topics, whether this is a business lunch or a business cocktail. Always observe, listen and adjust.
Depending on where your partner is from, dining together can have different reasons. In China, you can go to dinner long before establishing any rules of cooperation. It can seem rather weird for people from Western countries, where eating together is pretty much a way of agreeing details.
3. Business negotiation and meetings
One thing to remember about business meetings: always be on time, but don’t be too surprised if the person you’re meeting isn’t. People from the USA and Western Europe are usually on time or even a bit early, whereas people from South American countries and Africa tend to be a little bit late. Don’t get offended by it, it’s just the way they work. It’s nothing personal.
In some cultures being polite and respecting other people’s opinion is very important. People from Asia can be quite distant, quiet and very soft-spoken, whereas people from Southern Europe or Africa are definitely more loud, less distant and direct. Try to respect your partner, no matter what their communication style is.
Cultural differences are a fact and it’s great to respect them, but keep in mind that they are very often exaggerated. Beware of stereotyping your partners! The truth of the matter is, it’s all about mutual respect. Remember we’re all human, and it’s easy to find common ground.