Dec 2014

You’ve just arrived in Geneva and answer a routine phone call from a potential Swiss German client with ‘Good morning, how are you?’ only to be met with your first culture shock; an impatient and abrupt response of, ‘I don’t have time for chit chat; let’s talk business’.

This could be taken as plain rudeness but really it’s nothing personal; it’s just the way things are done here and so maybe you should just start copying your colleagues: answer the phone with your last name and let the business conversation flow from there.

Communicating proper cultural norms can make the difference between a deal sealer or a deal crumbler.

Many professionals make the mistake in assuming that speaking a foreign language is enough for doing business abroad. Unfortunately, it’s not: only 30% of communication is via spoken language. It’s also easy to home in on the dos and don’ts, such as gift giving or hand shaking etiquette. Communicating successfully goes far deeper than that: it requires altering who you are and how you think from a cultural standpoint. Be wary, however, of certain cultural stereotypes; they don’t apply to everyone. Be open and flexible to avoid crossed wires and misinterpretation.

Fundamental themes in communication styles

United States: Outcome-orientated with a focus on being independent, assertive and taking the initiative and delivering positive feedback.

Asian countries: Hierarchy, respect and honour with a strong emphasis on listening, with controlled facial expressions and body language.

United Kingdom: The UK and the USA may share a common language but communication style is worlds apart: The Brits tend to be more conservative and indirect, cloaking negatives to avoid harsh criticism.

Latin countries: Relationship-focused with meaningful small-talk. Subjectivity and gesticulating. Respect for authority figures.

Germany, Scandinavia and Holland: Serious, precise and direct feedback – seen as a sign of respect. In Scandinavia, there is an emphasis on the collective good rather than that of the individual, contrary to the hierarchical structure in Asian communication style.

So if you want to seal that next crucial deal overseas, as well as translating those all-important business cards and Power Point slides make sure you also sign up to a business culture etiquette crash course to avoid any potential ‘faux pas’.



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