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How to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings when Traveling or Doing Business

90% of all misunderstandings are not due to what was said, but due to tone. How much more when it comes to misunderstandings between people of two different cultures speaking two different languages? What should you look out for when traveling or doing business abroad?

There are several stumbling blocks and mistakes we make without even realising it, but it is easy to avoid them if you know what to look out for! Read on!

1. Don’t Expect Everyone to Understand and Speak your Language

There are numerous stumbling blocks when it comes to intercultural communication, but the most obvious one is language (I will use the English language as an example.)

The numbers vary but it is estimated that 1.5 billion people speak English. From those 1.5 billion, 1 billion people are learning English world-wide. The majority (around 750 million) speaks English as a Foreign Language and almost 400 million use English as a Second Language.

The difference between both groups is that English as a Foreign Language speakers use English occasionally for business or travel, while the English as a Second Language group speaks English on a day-to-day basis. So considering that the common business language or language for trade is English, it is a necessity to be aware of the problems these speakers face.

The numbers just mentioned do not necessarily mean that the speaker is always confident or well-versed like a native speaker, thus may not understand jokes, language play or idioms. So keep your English (or whatever language it is you are using) simple, avoid jokes and colloquial expressions that no one outside your country would understand.

2. Don’t become Culturally Blind

Another stumbling block in intercultural communication is the basic assumption of similarities. This basically means that without thinking, we assume we have the same values, the same way of thinking, and the same way of approaching problems or agreements as the culture we are dealing with. Here we speak of “Cultural Blindness”.

The differences between both cultures are basically being ignored and treated as if they do not exist. Many people may think that there is no reason to worry about a person’s culture as long as we are all friendly and smile.

However, this will not suffice – especially if you belong to a culture where the common approach to people is more direct. So no matter how much you smile, if your words offend the other because of your ‘directness’ and you speak your mind, it is not necessarily going to help create a good relationship without possibly offending the other party. And also, imagine running around Scandinavia or Northern Europe smiling at everyone you see…. They would think something’s wrong with you!

Keep in mind that not all cultures like to be ‘direct’ in their approach with people if a problem occurs. Some cultures in Asia will altogether not talk about the problem to simply avoid any form of conflict. This is something that can be very irritating for a Western person as we generally like to talk about issues face to face and thus have no bad feelings afterwards. Whereas in some Asian countries, this could lead to a total break of the relationship that can never be restored. This not only applies to businesses but also to family or friendships. (Read more on low- vs. high-context cultures).

So to be safe, do not assume that everyone deals with problems the same way you do and even if you think it is the ‘right’ approach to talk to someone face-to-face, think twice! You may be putting a relationship or a business deal at risk!

3. Beware of your Body Language

A third stumbling block which needs attention are the non-verbal assumptions. With these, I mean things such as eye-contact or personal space. Some cultures consider it important to look someone directly in the eye whereas other cultures consider it as a sign of disrespect.

Before you travel to a country, read up on body language! Some cultures need more personal space than others; some will shake hands, others won’t; some will cross their legs while sitting, others find that disrespectful. The list goes on and on and here we are already dipping into the ‘shallow level of culture’ (check "Culture, Communication and Icebergs"). You will not easily see or learn these things if you are just staying in a country for a short while as these things do not belong to the most easily seen aspects of a culture. If not sure, check out some of the trainings I have provided here.

4. Don’t think you are better just because of where you’re from

Ethnocentrism means the inability to accept another culture’s world view. Here, people believe that their way is the best way. Unfortunately, this can often be seen as an attitude of more developed countries. People often believe that because of their country being more developed in many areas, especially economically, that they have a big enough reason to think they know better in how to deal with daily matters and problems. Otherwise, how would they have gained such a position in the world in the first place…they must know best…! (Obviously, I don’t mean this!)

Unfortunately, with such a prideful attitude, one is less likely to land a good business deal with a prospective client from a different culture. This does not only have to apply to businesses but even to foreigners coming from developed countries living in maybe a less developed country. They may assume a certain kind of supremacy and subconsciously look down on people living there.

In extreme cases, this can lead to discrimination and to an attitude like: "We just aren't equipped to serve people like that."

So remove any pride you have and love the people you deal with for who they are and for what they do – and do not think you know it all just because their country may not be as developed as yours!

5. Do not (always) Stereotype

"She's like that because she's Asian – all Asians are nonverbal."

Stereotyping a culture seems like a natural thing to do as each culture contains things that are different or appear strange to us. Oftentimes, the stereotype of a country may be somewhat ‘correct’ to a certain degree, but others can be plain wrong or outdated. The downside about stereotyping a country is that it often prevents us from learning something new about a culture as we assume we already know everything we need to know. Additionally, it keeps us from understanding some aspects about a culture in a more appropriate way.

Stereotypes are not always bad and not always completely wrong, but be open to understand why and do not become ignorant to learn…

6. Do as we do!

This point is about ‘cultural imposition’ and more for those welcoming a guest/visitor from another country.

When we talk about cultural imposition, it basically means that you are imposing your own cultural beliefs and practices on another person or group of people. It means disregarding someone else’s beliefs or practices and believing that the “others”, which could be foreigners living in your country, minorities, or even lesser developed countries should conform to the majority. You demonstrate a certain kind of arrogance as in, "We know what's best for you, if you don't like it, you can go elsewhere."

So, if you are the one welcoming someone from a foreign country, don’t mess it up by having this attitude by disregarding and ignoring the beautiful culture and traditions they bring with them!

These are just some of the major stumbling blocks people often run into when travelling abroad, doing business with a foreign company, living abroad or not knowing why they are not getting along better with foreigners living in their country.

How about you? What is your experience? Please share your experiences in the comment box below!

Need help to overcome these obstacles? You don’t know how to overcome differences? You need more information or training for your company or as an individual? Please check out my cross-cultural lessons including basic cultural etiquette!

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