Recognising and understanding cultural differences in your new market

Sheelagh Mahoney of Farnham Castle Intercultural Training explains why cultural glasses are a must when going global.

It’s vital that British companies trading overseas adjust the business practices they would normally adopt in the UK to take into account a myriad of cultural differences they will encounter.

The British way of conducting best business practice is shaped by our own individual cultural lens, which is influenced by experiences from key areas of our life such as family, education, friends, colleagues and career. We therefore see our business world clearly and are confident in the clarity of our vision.

Doing business in a new country however, is like picking up the wrong pair of reading glasses. While vague shapes – such as buildings – may be the same, everything else is fuzzy and you can very quickly feel a headache – literal or metaphorical – looming.

The reason for this is that even though your product or service as well as your business acumen have not changed – the frame of reference has. Business is different in a different country, and how it is conducted may confuse, frustrate or even upset us. Our approach could likewise affront our global clients and business partners.

Recognising cultural differences

Devising a mind-set which creates common ground between the diametrically opposed perceptions is therefore critical – you need to understand and embrace cultural diversity.

The solution lies in donning “cultural spectacles” to help manage a business successfully across different countries, ensuring effective and productive outputs when working with differing nationalities and allowing us to plant and harvest the amazing rewards of international trade.

As companies broaden their export horizons, the wealth of diversities they encounter becomes more immediate – and more complex. It is therefore vital to consider our competence in cross-cultural communications as a lack of understanding and sensitivity to cultural differences can lead to business failures and create difficulties for expatriates who have taken up residence.

Open to Export has articles on selecting the right market and getting started in market research which can help you to don those cultural spectacles.

Ditch any pre-conceptions

Equally as important is separating myth from reality – ditching any pre-conceptions. For example, does every Indian business leader consult a horoscope before making important decisions or every Russian engineer drink a litre of vodka a day?  Of course the answer is “no” to both, however we must understand that the reality of doing business abroad differs from our own reality.

Get the basics right

Getting the basics right is vital such as how to greet your new colleagues. In Russia, for example  don’t shake hands over a threshold because Russian folk belief says that this action will lead to an argument.

Be aware of language

How do you elicit a real answer from a Chinese supplier who will not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – bearing in mind that Mandarin does not have a simple word for either yes or no. Is the purpose of a meeting to discuss an agenda or to inform your team of decisions already taken?

You can read more on Open to Export about the role of translation when entering new markets.


You cannot learn or be fully prepared for everything – but you can take some key steps to develop profitable work synergies and commercial opportunities that can stem from cultural differences.

Essential preparation to develop your global mindset and accelerate international success includes:

  • Challenging your assumptions and expectations. Your view of the world and business is totally subjective. Look through your cultural lens and be receptive to expect different interpretations of simple things
  • Do your preparation – ask around, conduct some research and reading
  • Have a basic level in the language of the country you are trading with. If it is a long term deal, show your commitment by investing in the language, not just the travel phrases
  • Take the time to build a relationship – a friend will be more forgiving than a cold business contact.

Your cultural glasses will keep you in the frame for continued global success in business and help to bring your international vision to fruition.

Topics: Getting Started
Export Action Plan