Most of us know that local colloquialisms don’t translate well internationally and that humour is subjective. This article provides insights into cultural behaviours and customs from different countries to help with international business interactions and relationship-building. It emphasises the importance of understanding cultural nuances to ensure smooth communication and avoid misunderstandings.
Humour, tradition, and good manners are commonly associated with being British. The Brits are very polite and communicate more indirectly, respectfully and diplomatically than most others. Here are some tips when dealing with people from the UK.
Refrain from complaining – The British generally swallow lousy service or bad food at a restaurant to avoid making a scene. They tend to become nervous if they voice their dissatisfaction. Criticism should also be expressed indirectly; Sensitivity is required; otherwise, it may only make our British counterpart hostile and defensive.
Be Polite – In a restaurant, Brits say thank you when they get the menu, when they place the order, when they get their dishes, when the waiter takes away the plates, and even when they pay! They say “excuse me” or “pardon me” if they want to pass someone and “I’m sorry” if they accidentally touch someone. They even say sorry if someone stands on their toes!
Be Patient – British people are usually very patient and queue for everything (it’s only fair). It is best to imitate this behaviour. You might wait even longer if you try to rush in or hurry someone.
Je ne sais quoi
Our European colleagues work hard, but social and family life are equally important. When doing business, try to respect the difference between the two.
Respect work | life balance – The French are known to take time with their food, be ready to spend 2-3 hours eating at a table and talk about food between working hours. They believe taking a break is essential to enjoy one of life’s most important pleasures (we agree). The Germans work hard and are conscientious and flexible, but many value a separation between private life and working life once the work is done. In Norway, you can usually only reach people on the phone between 9 am and 3 pm, especially for those who pick up kids at kindergarten (but they might answer your email at 11 pm!). Don’t expect to be able to book meetings on Fridays with a Norwegian, as they tend to rush out of town to go to the summer house/mountain cabin early or maybe even Thursday night.
Avoid misinterpretations – The French like to criticise and often grumble just for the sake of it; this doesn’t mean they are being difficult; it’s simply ‘their way’. The Finnish are similar, there’s a misconception that Finns are taciturn, but they are, in fact, very warm and sincere people. It may take some time before you can break the ice with a Finn until they get more comfortable. While the Czechs may not smile much, they are mostly happy, just not brave enough to always show it! Take your time to get to know the Czechs; you can count on their warm friendship if you are patient.
In Germany, expect a directness that would seem almost rude in some other cultures, but it’s actually related to their need for efficiency. They like to discuss, state an opinion, give feedback, and get to the point quickly. Twenty minutes of small talk at the opening of a meeting is too much, and the Finns would agree! Similarly, Norwegians tend to be direct when meeting/greeting people. This might be perceived as abrupt or unfriendly to most other nationalities, but it’s standard among Norwegians to get to business quickly. So when in Germany or Norway, be direct with them. They can take it, and it saves everyone from misunderstandings by being overly subtle.
Reliability – Some call it “overly formal “. The Germans call it solidly reliable. They take pride in being reliable in big and small things and believe in making it clear within the working team what’s expected to be done by whom and when. The Germans & Finns are very punctual people. They live by the clock and follow timetables and other plans quite strictly, especially at work and in their personal life. Agreed meeting times are followed precisely, even to the minute. Being late is considered impolite, so an apology or brief explanation often follows it.
Sincerity and commitment – Communication with the Finns is clear and straightforward. You can expect them to tell you what they think rather than what you want to hear. For example, saying ‘no’ is not considered impolite. It is better to say ‘no’ and then explain why not. It is valuable to them that people can trust that they mean what they say. While in Norway, an oral agreement is just as valid as a written one, and Norwegians expect that rule to apply to the rest of the world, so be careful what you agree to verbally.
George Bernard Shaw was quoted in 1942 as saying, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Nowadays, there is definitely more than language that differentiates us. Here are a few tips from our American colleagues to remember when conducting transatlantic business.
Avoid politics! It is typically against corporate policies to discuss politics and religion in the workplace in the US. The reason? Because these things are usually very personal to people and can lead to heated debate. We recognise that most people worldwide want to know about our politics, but it makes most people in the US uncomfortable discussing it.
Understand “slang” words: In the US, slang words are ever-changing and can have surprisingly complex meanings. Slang terms can come and go quickly. Ensure you understand how the word is used, the background of the term, and if it is still relevant.
Watch for passive-aggressive comments. The most well-known example in the South is “Bless your heart”. The phrase has multiple meanings, and while it is usually used to express genuine sympathy, it’s sometimes used as an insult that conveys condescension, disdain, or contempt. It may also be spoken as a precursor to an insult to mitigate its severity.
Don’t assume Americans all wear cowboy hats and ride horses in the South or are best friends with celebrities if they live in California or New York. That’s Hollywood, not real life 😉
Here’s a summarised checklist of the key points mentioned:
- British people value politeness and diplomacy.
- Complaints and criticism should be expressed indirectly and with sensitivity.
- Politeness is highly valued, with frequent use of “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “sorry.”
- Patience and queuing are expected behaviours.
- French people prioritise work-life balance, enjoy long meals, and appreciate breaks.
- Germans are hardworking, conscientious and value a clear separation between work and private life.
- Norwegians have specific availability times, prioritise family, and tend to leave early for the weekends.
- Cultural expressions may not always align with initial perceptions, e.g., French criticism, Czech reserve, and Finnish warmth.
- Germans and Norwegians prefer direct communication and appreciate efficiency.
- Avoid discussing politics and religion in the workplace due to their personal and potentially divisive nature.
- Stay updated on slang words, which can change rapidly and carry nuanced meanings.
- Be cautious of passive-aggressive comments
- Avoid stereotypes; Hollywood does not represent everyday American life.
Understanding these cultural nuances can enhance business interactions and foster better relationships with individuals from different countries.