Cross Cultural Differences in Business

We readily acknowledge that cultural differences exist. It is apparent looking at cities like Shanghai and Sydney that the differences are profound. Yet, within a business context we often think that the differences have faded away to be replaced with a generic international business culture, one-size-fits-all from Sydney to Shanghai to Stockholm.

This perception is often supported by our initial view of business in those cities.  Businesspeople dress similarly and seem to behave similarly. While art and decor have some variations, the standard office furniture exists in any of these locations. And yet, a few close observations will reveal the differences that do exist.

The furniture and layout of the offices can provide an indication of the differences.Are the offices open-plan or cubicles? If it is a combination of the two, what positions have offices? How are those offices decorated or furnished? These aspects can give you an indication of how status is viewed, and who deserves respect. Are the doors open or shut? Even the position of the guests’ chairs in the office can show you the extent of personal space that people feel comfortable with in this business culture.

From a behavioural perspective there are also many business culture differences. Greetings and meetings are two major examples. Are the greetings simple and casual? A quick handshake; enquire after your flight, and down to business using first names. Or are the greetings more formal and structured - a formal introduction with full titles, careful exchange of business cards, offering of refreshments and general conversation about the background behind your visit, with a smooth move into talking business much later in the process. And in meetings, do we arrive prior to time, five minutes late or anytime during the meeting? Do we have a structured agenda and take part in open discussion and possibly heated debate or does the meeting follow a general path seeming to raise issues but never openly discussing them.

Management can be a minefield with different expectations about roles and responsibilities.  As a manager is it your role to relate with your employees primarily about work performance and work related issues or is your role far wider and to focus only on work related issues would be seen as uncaring and cold?

Many of the differences that exist are below the surface and relate to issues such as a status and hierachy, respect and honour, community or individual focus. Understanding these and other value differences between cultures can provide a starting point to anticipating and understanding some of the cultural differences that exist between business and preparing to make changes in your own business behaviour and style.