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Mistakes to Avoid in Cross-Cultural Interactions

Whether or not you work or live overseas, it is very important to learn cross-cultural business etiquette. Demonstrating cultural awareness enhances your credibility and helps you build trust with others. Here are some of the mistakes you need to avoid when interacting with people from other cultures:


Different cultures have different expectations and manners when it comes to food:

  • In Russian and Asian cultures, talking during a meal is not recommended. If you have anything to say, wait till after dinner. This is not the case in places like America where conversations around the table is common.
  • When in Asian countries, be mindful of how you use chopsticks. Don’t use them for pointing or making gestures. In addition, never stick them in an upright position since this signifies death. Always place your chopsticks side by side and never cross them.
  • The amount of food eaten is an issue of concern in some cultures. Your Italian, Greek or Russian hosts might not take it kindly if you don’t eat enough.
  • Don’t offer alcohol to your Mormon, Muslim or Seventh Day Adventist friends.
  • When in Russia, your host may be offended if you decline an offer of vodka. It is usually given as a sign of friendship and trust.
  • Never offer a Hindu beef since it is considered unholy in their religion. In the same way, Jews and Muslims shun pork.

Clothing and colour

  • In countries like Russia, Thailand and South Pacific, visitors are expected to remove their shoes before entering a home.
  • Casual or sloppy dressing is considered impolite in countries such as United Arab Emirates and Italy.
  • The colour of clothing is also a matter of concern in some cultures. In China, white clothing is associated with death while red is considered lucky. When in Malaysia, never wear yellow. Only royalty is expected to dress in this colour.

Gestures and body language

  • In Japan, crossing your legs in front of a respected or older person is considered disrespectful. In South Africa and Middle East, crossed legs are seen as a bad omen since they often expose the sole of the foot.
  • In Middle East, Africa and India, the right hand is normally used for eating, touching and greeting. Using the left hand is considered offensive.
  • In most Western countries, the ‘thumbs up’ sign is considered a sign of approval. However, in some Middle East nations, the same sign is very offensive.
  • Pointing is rude in most cultures around the world. It would be advisable to avoid it entirely.
  • A handshake in Middle East indicates that serious negotiations are starting. However, in the United States, it signifies that negotiations are over.

Knowing which gestures are taboos can be difficult. Therefore, it would be advisable to refrain from any gestures until you are sure. Take time to observe how locals act and follow their lead

Whether you are hosting a customer from a foreign country, managing a culturally diverse group or working overseas, cross-cultural awareness is very vital. To avoid making mistakes, take time to research the expectations and values of different cultures. This will enable you to relate appropriately with stakeholders as well as your team members.  

Image: Flickr, Romer Jed Medina

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