Different Cultures Do Things Differently


When you begin to do business across different countries you quickly become aware of the scope to which different ways of doing things effects how you carry out business.

This usually starts at the very first communication:

  • How you say hello

Different cultures have different ways of saying hello.

Greeting someone in the right way goes beyond a simple translation of the word “hello”.  It is also many different aspects of how you say hello.

For example, in Anglo-Saxon countries, you can start an email off with a simple “Hi” in most circumstances. But in other countries you would might need to make a more formal greeting and take a little time to present yourself.  Even if you are writing in English you still need to pay attention to cultural differences and perceptions.

French people feel more comfortable, for example, when they know how to address you in return. They are used to an elaborate etiquette in writing hello and goodbye.  A simple “Hi” is not a good idea because it does not give them enough to know how to address you in return and this can make them feel uncomfortable.

Learning how to say “hello” to different cultures can be a challenge in itself and when you feel confident at this stage, you may think that you are halfway through developing your international skills.

But this is far from the truth…

These skills will help you, but you need to continually question different methods of doing things.  This is because different ways of doing things  effect how business is done at all levels.

The Cross-Cultural Communication Challenge – An International Catalog

About 15 years ago, I was responsible for putting a catalog together for a major international event. I had to contact over 1000 participants from all over the world and get the text they wanted for their entry in the catalog as well as their company logo.

This was before the web was present over the world as it is today. At the time, the company logo had to be given to the printing house in a specific format.

The trouble was that different countries preferred different formats and these different formats:

  • Either, did not work in another process
  • Or, produced the wrong results in another process

The words to describe this specific format were different in different countries. Yes, even in English. To complicate matters even more, the people I was in contact with were not all well-versed in professional printing practices.

Whenever I tried to use the correct vocabulary there were just too many wrong interpretations or translations due to:

  • Different cultures used different vocabulary
  • Different ways to provide materials for print
  • Different cultures had different preferred printing methods

In the end, I found the best way to avoid any errors was to take the time to describe:

  • What the required printing materials physically looked like
  • How it fit into the printing process

The Cross-Cultural Communication Mistake – Different Printing Practices

The result?

Well… I was told that the catalog I put together had the fewest errors in it that the publisher had ever seen for similar events. And I had done this in a very short time frame.

But despite all of my efforts, I did have one print error.

Yes, it was a big one.

A logo was printed back to front. And this was very embarrassing because it was for:

  • An important client – so high level apologies were needed
  • A Japanese client – where the cultural differences make it difficult to find the appropriate way to apologize

This mistake was a direct result of people doing things differently in different cultures.

I thought I had resolved all of these issues.  But there were several hundred of them and as usual, the it was a job that had to be done in a short time frame.  And one wrong logo did actually slip through the net.  The only way I might have prevented this error was to physically be on the production scene and to take the time to check every single one as it came through.

In this case, wrong interpretations or miscommunication could potentially happen at every single stage along the process. This is one of the reasons why the previous catalogs had more errors.

Different Cultures Do Things Differently

You must never forget that different cultures do things differently.

  • There is no right way or wrong way
  • There are just different ways

And in any international setting you quickly learn to question your own way of doing things.

  • Is this what is being asked?
  • What am I asking the others?
  • Is this appropriate?

The first lessons you learn when adapting how you say hello in different cultures help you when confronted with other challenges created by doing things differently. In cross-cultural communication you learn to simplify the requests you make and the responses you give while striving for effective cross-cultural communication. With experience you will probably notice how the best solution is often a simple one.

What about you?

Can you share how you coped with different ways of doing things?

  • Do you know of any cultural blunders due to different ways of doing things?
  • What tactics have you used to work across cultures when people did things differently?
  • How do different ways of doing things in different cultures effect your business?

What do you think? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

Photos from Shutterstock.

  Filed under: Cross-Cultural Communication

Cindy King

  • http://masterthenewnet.com Susan Rice-Lincoln

    I really like your post. I am an American living in Paris for the last 20 years and have worked all over Europe from scandinavia to Spain. While on the one hand, I believe there is much in common with people around the globe, sensitivity is always a must in all international interpersonal relations. Its an interesting challenge as we all share the internet together and social media in particular. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out in the years to come!
    Very best, Susan Rice-Lincoln

    Susan Rice-Lincolns last blog post..Website Wisdom

    • http://cindyking.biz Cindy


      Thank you for stopping by… from so close!

      Yes, everyone with an international profile is interested in seeing what effect social media will have on all things international. It is still too early to tell.

      When I look closely at how social media is being used in a variety of specific countries worldwide I cannot help but think about social trend forecasters such as Adjiedj Bakas. The crystal ball is still too fuzzy.

  • http://partnersinexcellenceblog.com Dave Brock

    Cindy, as a person who spends at least 50% of my time working outside the US with people in many countries and cultures, I was particularly struck by the comment: There is no right or wrong way, There are just different ways.

    This is perhaps the most important lesson any organization seeking to work globally needs to learn. Too often, I encounter people “imposing” their way of doing business on their global partners. Whether it is a “US,” “French,” “Chinese,” “Japanese” way; we tend to impose our standard business practices, approaches, processses, programs, management techniques on our global subsidiaries or partners. In my experience, this not only disrespects the capabilities of the people, it does not drive the highest levels of performance.

    Working effectively in the global market means understanding and executing, “There is no right or wrong way, There are just different ways.” Thanks for a great reminder.
    .-= Dave Brock´s last blog ..Do As I Say, Not As I Do =-.

    • http://cindyking.biz Cindy

      Hi Dave,

      Thank you for sharing your comments :)

      When people “impose” their practices on people from different cultures, I sometimes wonder how much is an unwillingness to adapt and how much is based on barriers on a personal level. I’ve seen both. …This reminds me, I have to write about the different cultural of the words “diversity” & “ethnic” & “cross-cultural” and the differences in how they come across as “pro – whatever” or the more open-minded attitude which accepts differences.

      And on another subject, I would love to know whether you find yourself sticking to “business basics” or not. One of the first things I noticed was how people adjust their vocabularies, and simplify communication. But I also notice how when there are different levels of market sophistication (and totally different ways of doing things) it seems easier when you get back to the basics and engage conversation there.

      • http://partnersinexcellenceblog.com Dave Brock

        Cindy, you raise some interesting points. Some thoughts:

        1. I’m not sure there is an unwillingness to adapt, I think there it may be a little more of a lack of recognition of the need to adapt. However, worldly people seem to be, we are often very provincial. This provincialism, I think leads to a conscious or even unconscious arrogance — both on the sending and recieving sides. “We’ve been very successful in our own country, we know how to do it, we know what customers need, etc.” This is countered by: “We are (substitute the nationality you want), we know how things work here, you can’t tell us anything that could possibly be valuable.”

        This tends to be where communication starts and where the initial breakdowns occur. Hardly a great start for high performance. We (on both sides) tend to muscle things through, not understanding, acknowleding, or reconciling differing points of view. Then we don’t produce the results we could, the relationship is never achieves it’s full potential and so on.

        2. The issue of “business basics” is interesting. I think there is a tendency to simplify the words we use–just as somehow, at least for Americans visiting internationally, we think shouting improves people’s comprehension. While we express ourselves in “business basics,” there is no escaping the complexity that is what we really mean but probably are not communicating. We come into situations with certain experiences, assumptions, etc. Culturally, we tend to attack issues and problems very differently. In our own countries and cultures, we tend to be a little more unconsciously aligned (though think of all the tremendous miscommunication that happens even within a culture/country). We tend to speak in a sort of shorthand and understand each other. In the cross cultural exchanges, we don’t have that common shorthand, we tend to simplify the words we say, but we are still thinking and biased by our business shorthand.

        For example, I talk to a lot of CEO’s and EVP’s of Sales around the world. The way I approach a conversations with most American executives — particularly technology executives is almost diametrically opposed to the way I might speak to their European counterpart and very different than I would approach any of their Asian counterparts. While we might get to the same end point, in roughly the same time, the path to get there has to be very different.

        Don’t know if I answered your questions, but I really appreciate the dialogue!
        .-= Dave Brock´s last blog ..Do As I Say, Not As I Do =-.