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Coping With Cultural Differences

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Cross-cultural differences can be significant impediments to successful international projects. Luckily though, these situations can be avoided by having a grasp of the do’s and don’ts of various cultures or at least by ‘playing it safe’.

We’ve witnessed countless minor and major cultural mannerisms over our past 30 years in international trade. While many of them were perceived simply as cultural lessons by our foreign partners, we’ve also seen cases when it led to broken business links and missed opportunities—something one would ideally avoid!

A classic example is laughter in China—where it might have a broader set of meanings than elsewhere. One of our American customers had a delivery problem with his Chinese source as his order was expected at an earlier date. At a meeting, the Chinese factory manager started laughing when this issue was brought up. We had to explain to our customer that this laughter actually meant embarrassment and anxiety as opposed to rudeness and disrespect.

Another customer from the US was often teased by his Chinese partners because of his slightly overweight body! Phrases such as "Oh boy, you put on a lot of weight" or even nicknames such as "blimpy" were offered. Though all this rubbed our customer the wrong way, he never showed it to this partner, since we had coached him to expect these kinds of remarks—they are often considered to be friendly and positive in China. But at the same time, we sometimes ask our suppliers to be more thoughtful if we feel that something may cross the line.

Challenges both ways

On the other hand, some American cultural traits can be troublesome in Asia. For instance, it would possibly be considered 'normal' in the States to use the verb 'hate' in our emails. “I hate when this happens” is definitely a normal sentence. However, 'hate' is one of the strongest words in many Asian cultures and should always be avoided.

Likewise, while it’s not something we’d encourage, we know an American businessman who was invited to a factory tour in Taiwan on Saturday where he showed up ... wearing shorts! It would possibly be considered ‘normal’ in the States, particularly within Silicon Valley’s tech industry, considering it was Saturday. However, his Taiwanese partner was shocked and asked the American to put proper pants on.

Also, Asian business people often find Westerners too straightforward. Americans and Europeans tend to say what they actually mean, and this can be both surprising and embarrassing for many Asians who are usually more indirect and harder to read. "No problem" is a very common response to most requests in Asia, but by no means is it a guarantee.  Be prepared when the verbiage changes to "there could or might be a problem". These phrases usually indicate cause for concern.

Finally, there are major cultural differences between Americans and the Europeans. Take trade shows— in the US, European exhibitors and attendees tend to be quiet and shy, to say the least. They often sit in their booths and simply wait for others to pop in and to strike up a conversation. Yet the Americans very often stand next to their booths; they try to lure random passersby to their exhibits and to strike up a conversation—something usually very normal in the States, but often weird and even frowned upon at European events.

A quick research on the internet often helps one to understand the cultural basics and it’s something we always recommend. However, feel free to get in touch with us for further details and insights— with more than 30 years of experience in trade across all continents, we know how businesses and people work!

Quick cheat sheet for dealing with cultural differences and uncertainties:

  • Use common sense!
  • Expect the unexpected
  • Perform some research, Google the cultural and business etiquette basics
  • Be tolerant and don't rush to conclusions
  • Try 'playing it safe'
  • 'Do as the Romans do'
  • Comply, but respect yourself
  • Have a trustworthy guide and advisor who understands both languages and cultures


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