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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