New thinking

Why cultural sensitivity matters

Understanding cultural differences is essential in the workplace, both internally and externally. Get it right and you lay the foundations of great working relationships. Get it wrong and you can cause offense, lose trust and jeopardise a lucrative contract.

As more and more firms employ people from diverse cultures and serve clients with business operations in multiple countries, there is a constant danger of inadvertently committing a cultural faux pas.

While minor insensitivity may be brushed off with an embarrassed smile, cultural insensitivity can seriously irk employees, customers, partners and suppliers, especially when they think you should know better.

From failing to bow in the right manner in Japan to using your left hand inappropriately in the Middle East, or failing to say what you mean in the United States or Australia, it’s easy to get off on the wrong footing when meeting people from different cultural backgrounds.

According to research by CT Business Travel, the French prefer to shake hands lightly, as do the Japanese and South Koreans. And while pre-business chit-chat may be customary in Brazil, this is not the case in Russia, Switzerland and a number of other countries.

Cultural awareness goes far deeper than simple manners in business meetings. It’s about understanding local customs, traditions, governments and economies. Its also about being sensitive to company culture, values and individual personalities.

Reading the air

English is widely used in global business but it’s important to respect the local language of the people you are doing business with, even if it’s just a few words of welcome.

While being fluent in English may give you an advantage in negotiations, it’s how you convey your message that’s really important. This means understanding subtle non-verbal communication such as body language and being able to “read the air” to understand subtle signals and silent pauses, especially in Japan.

Knowing what to do and how to communicate with people from different cultures will not only help you develop good relationships around the world, it will also help you foster trust in your business.

Falee Bilimoria, from the Mumbai office of global accounting firm Mazars, says: “Understanding culture is critical. Even for something like presenting a proposal to a client, understanding how the other person is going to view it is so important. When I am making a proposal to a US client or a European client, for example, it is different.”

James Kallman, Senior Advisor and CEO at the Jakarta office of international accounting firm Moores Rowland Indonesia, says: “Cultural sensitivity is incredibly important, but things are changing. It’s a lot better now because the world is much more globalised.”

Commenting on the lengths to which business professionals go to foster good customer relationships, James adds: “I remember a friend of mine in the US who was doing business with Japan. The Japanese were buying a lot of real estate in New York and when they came to the US, my friend would leave slippers for them at the hotel so they could walk to the bathroom.”

In fact, strictly speaking, it is good etiquette in Japan to have guest slippers as well as bathroom slippers and toilet slippers.

Learning from experience

So, how can we improve our cultural sensitivity to develop successful working relationships around the world?

James, who moved from the US to Asia in 1991, says much of cultural sensitivity is down to learning from experience. “In Indonesia, as in many cultures in this part of the world, you do not hand something to somebody with your left hand. It’s rude. This is because the left hand is used for cleaning oneself after going to the bathroom,” he explains.

“When I go back to the US and I go to a McDonald’s drive-through, I always reach across with my right hand to pay because I am so conditioned. Occasionally, if I do have to use my left hand because I am holding something in my right hand, I always say ‘maaf’, which means sorry in Indonesian.”

Then there’s the subject of drinking tea. “It would be fatal if I met a government official or somebody else important in Indonesia and I took a sip of tea before my host invited me to drink it. That’s because it’s very culturally insensitive to do so.”

But not everyone has the opportunity to learn from experience before they are plunged into a potentially tricky situation, especially younger professionals and those with limited contact with different cultures other than those they grew up with. And companies can ill-afford to make mistakes that could threaten a business deal.

Doing your homework

Falee Bilimoria stresses the importance of researching the people you are going to meet. “You have to plan in advance how you will deal with that person,” he says.

“It also depends on the industry. It’s not just country to country differences. In India, for example, the average age of employees in the software industry is between 25 and 30 years old, and the management team is also young and adept at making quick decisions and taking a few chances. If your advice is a little conservative, you will not find favour with the team and be regarded as a hindrance to their business plans.”

Similarly, when dealing with people, he stresses that you need to be sensitive to differences in a particular setting. He adds: “It all depends on the person you are dealing with for a particular situation.”

The importance of training

To minimise the risk of cultural insensitivity, many companies working across international borders are investing in cross-cultural or intercultural training for staff, clients and other stakeholders. They include members of Praxity Global Alliance – the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting and consulting firms.

Training specialist Cathy Wellings, Director of London School of International Communication, says: “One of the most powerful results of intercultural training is when participants begin to see how their behaviours might be interpreted by colleagues or partners from other cultures and they realise the need to adapt their ‘normal’ way of doing things.”

She adds: “It is always great when we see those lightbulb moments during our intercultural programmes when participants begin to understand why their colleagues do things differently and see the potential benefits of cross-cultural diversity rather than simply seeing cultural differences as difficult or frustrating.”

James Kallman says cross-cultural training is “absolutely critical”. He reveals his own lightbulb moment came when he was a young manager in China.

He explains: “When I first came to Asia, I was with Price Waterhouse and my job was to start a business in China. I was hiring staff but they were leaving and I couldn’t work out why. One lasted just a day. I was 25 years old, I was a new manager and I would joke around with colleagues in the US. A Chinese colleague pointed out this joking around was rude. Then I got it. And after that my staff retention was really high.”

Asking the right questions

Falee Bilimoria agrees cross-cultural training is paramount and says it’s also a good idea to vet staff at the recruitment stage to assess their level of cultural sensitivity.

“When hiring staff, it is important to get an idea if they know how the world works and gauge their cultural background. The culture and traditions in various parts of India are different and you must have an understanding of this when hiring or engaging with staff. Fortunately, with the global fusion of traditions and cultures, in future it may boil down to the fact that if you are good at your job, you should ultimately be able to succeed.”

This highlights the importance of being sensitive to every aspect of culture, from language to industry to traditions, in any business situation.

The key is being able to acknowledge cultural differences without making value judgements. It’s about respecting that everyone is different, both within and outside an organisation.

For more information on what to do in different cultures, check out this guide to global business etiquette from CT Business Travel:

For more information on the London School of International Communications, visit:

This article was written for Praxity Global Alliance, the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting and consulting firms.