Culture Clash


Working in a global industry means communicating daily with individuals across borders, oceans and continents. It also includes traveling far distances to establish and further develop business relationships. We live in a culturally diverse world, where one of the keys to international business success is knowledge of the impact of cultural differences.

Bridging the culture gap can be challenging, but if you make a small effort to obtain a greater understanding of others’ background and social norms it will be highly appreciated and it will make your business relationships more positive and successful.

Let’s visit the world’s continents, and see what you might want to avoid doing when dealing with or visiting a respective country:

In Western cultures, people are taught to look people in the eyes at all times; averting the eyes often signifies a lack of sincerity or confidence. In Japan on the other hand, constant eye contact is considered rude or even aggressive.

Business cards should be accepted with both hands as a sign of deference.In Indonesia it is considered extremely rude to point with the forefinger. It is especially rude if the pointing is towards a person. When pointing the Indonesian uses his thumb.

In Thailand it is considered rude to cross your legs in company and to point your toes at another person. The feet, as the lowest part of the body, are given the lowest esteem and pointing a toe is demeaning to the person at whom the foot is pointed.

In the Philippines if someone is buying you a meal, the invitee orders first. The invited should order items equal to or below the cost of the invitee’s meal.

In China It is considered polite to decline a gift when it is first offered and the giver is expected to offer it multiple times. Also gifts are generally not opened in the giver’s presence.

In China and other Asian countries, it is considered impolite for a person to pour their own drink. Generally an individual will offer to pour a companion’s drink and the companion, in return will pour the individual’s drink.

In Bangladesh, the “Thumbs Up” gesture is considered an offensive insult.

Tipping is considered rude and is never done in Japan.

In German business dealings, moving your chair closer to the host is considered an insult.

In Russia prolonged direct eye contact may be considered aggressive or as invitation to more intimate relationships (especially with the opposite sex), so it should be avoided in business relationships.

In France, assuming that people speak English without inquiry may be found unpleasant; being able to greet in French and ask whether the Frenchman speaks English is highly appreciated.

Silence is golden throughout most of Scandinavia. Do not feel the need to fill any silence with conversation. Silence is often used as thinking time and the prelude to what will be said next.

In many European countries, punctuality is essential and any possible late arrival should be communicated in advance.

When doing business in the Middle East, handshakes are always used and can last a long time. Islamic etiquette recommends that one waits for the other to withdraw their hand first before doing the same. Always use the right hand. Do not be surprised if your hand is held while you are led somewhere.

In most Arab countries, it is considered polite and a sign of friendship to hold hands when walking. This does not have the romantic connotations it does in the West.

The Middle Eastern culture places more value on someone’s word as opposed to a written agreement. A person’s word is connected to their honour.

Meetings should not be made too far in advance as changes in personal circumstances may impact your appointment. Once an appointment has been made, confirm it verbally with the person you will meet a few days before. Punctuality is expected of foreigners.

In Arab countries displaying the soles of one’s feet or touching somebody with one’s shoes is considered rude.

In Iraq the “Thumbs Up” gesture is considered an offensive insult.

When visiting someone’s home in Canada, the serving of coffee at the end of an evening is a signal that it is time for vsisitors to prepare to leave.

In the US it is considered impolite not to cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing. When someone else sneezes, it is customary to say “Bless you”. If someone says “Bless you” to you, it is customary to reply with “Thank you.”

In the US, one should address those significantly older than them as Mr., Sir, Mrs., Ma’am, Ms. or Miss. For example, it may be considered rude to address someone by their first name unless they have invited you to do so. In a professional setting this especially applies, however many people will ask you to refer to them by their last name.

South Americans like to talk in close proximity to each other. North Americans, and others, may see this as an invasion of personal space.

In many parts of Africa there is a cultural tendency toward a more relaxed attitude to time and punctuality.

In the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, direct and frank communication is not the norm in most parts of the region as most Africans are uncomfortable with blunt statements.

In Ghana, asking a person to a social event implies that the person offering the invite will be paying for everything. Inviting a person out and then expecting them to pay for their own drinks or food is considered extremely rude.

In South Africa it is the custom to look someone in the eye whenever touching glasses for a toast. Varying superstitious results can follow should you not do so.

In Australia when riding alone in a taxi, it is considered polite to sit in the front passenger seat next to the driver.

Australians are known to use informal language, and therefore may refer to some foreigners as “mate” instead of using more respectful titles. An example of this is the former Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, thanking the head of the United Nations for his support in the East Timor Crisis in year 2000, with the phrase: “I owe you a beer”.


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Lauga Oskarsdottir
Lauga is originally from Iceland, and is our Sales and Marketing Executive. She has been with MTS since May 2011. Lauga has experience as a Sales Manager for a large fitness corporation in Oslo, Norway before she moved to New York in 2009, where she obtained a Bachelors Degree in Business Management at Berkeley. Fun Fact: Lauga played professional soccer for 5 years in Norway, and also played for the Icelandic National Team as a goalkeeper! She played two seasons for the Berkeley College mens team, as their starting goalie and was awarded the Most Valuable Player of the season in 2010.