How to Bridge the Cultural Gap in Business?

See also: Intercultural Awareness

Working in an international team is standard in most industries nowadays. With remote workers, overseas offices and outsourcing, the gap between inter-corporate cultures gets deeper and deeper by the hour. Because of this, the diversity of your co-workers in an ethnic and cultural sense may become a barrier that some people don’t know how to overcome.

Sometimes, bigotry may be the main issue, yet, sometimes, it’s just a simple lack of knowledge and one’s ability to navigate the landscape of a multicultural office structure.

With that in mind, here are several tips you might want to use to help you bridge the cultural gap in business.

Global English Mentality

The first thing you need to understand is that a business email isn’t a creative writing test.

Sure, you may feel comfortable with U.S. idioms, metaphors or references; however, you need to understand that some of your partners may not have the same proficiency in the English language as you. Most of the time, this won’t prevent them from understanding the message, but why complicate the discourse when it can be done in a much simpler manner?

Overall, adjusting to non-native speakers may seem like a complex matter and even an unnecessary effort, yet you need to keep in mind that it’s pretty straightforward and there are several key points to focus on. For instance, you need to be as concise as possible, avoid idioms (something we’ve already mentioned), stop skipping the word ‘that’ (seeing as how its use is mandatory in most other languages), and try to be as literal as possible.

International Formatting

One of the things that often confuses intercultural businesses is time-formatting, especially when it comes to dates.

For instance, the US uses the mm-dd-yyyy format, whereas the rest of the world mostly uses the so-called traditional Danish date format dd-mm-yyyy. Either way, the same form of the date 1/11 can either be interpreted as January 11th (US format) or 1st November (traditional Danish format). In some instances, even the yyyy-mm-dd format is used (or even considered as the middle ground), still, seeing as how the majority of the business world doesn’t use it intuitively, it might be better to just skip the idea of using it altogether.

Moreover, when scheduling a meeting, make sure to name the time-zone on which it’s based for the sake of clarity. Likewise, when contacting a person on the other end of the line, you need to understand (at least consult Google) what time it is in their country. Calling someone in the middle of the night can be justified only by the utmost gravity of the situation. On the other hand, contacting a partner or a colleague living overseas in order to ask them a routine question that can clearly wait until the morning can definitely be considered as bad manners.


In the present-day business world, most entrepreneurs decide to outsource when establishing an online presence.

Collaborating with a company half-way across the world is much simpler than setting up your presence in a completely foreign market. In fact, it seems nearly impossible to penetrate a new region without assistance from a local partner, company or, at very least, a coordinator.

The greatest problem with this lies in the fact that it’s not just etiquette that’s different. It’s business practices, as well. For instance, when trying to make a breakthrough in Hong Kong, it’s much more efficient to entrust your digital marketing to a Hong Kong SEO company. This is especially important since every local region might require a customized campaign of its own.

Be careful with feedback

In the same way that some cultures have a different attitude towards physical contact, the issue of directness may also be huge.

When giving feedback, for instance, you need to be aware of this. Not all cultures have the same attitude towards criticism (even the constructive kind). Things might get even more complex as, in some cultures, offering to help people finish their work or even just assist them with their projects might be considered a lack of trust in their own abilities. On the other hand, in other cultures, this might be interpreted as the ultimate gesture of friendship.

Learn a couple of key phrases

This might be a bit tricky because there’s a fine line between learning a couple of key phrases from the culture of your co-worker and the assumption that you understand their culture because of it.

The first one is a nice gesture and a sign of respect, while the latter is demeaning. Trying to communicate in your own (extremely broken) version of their native language when you’re clearly both more proficient in English is a counter-productive (and sometimes even insulting) practice. As for the couple of key phrases that are used in everyday communication (hello, goodbye, thank you), this is knowledge acquisition that’s always a good idea.

Actively listen

The most important thing when working in a multi-cultural business lies in your ability to actively listen.

Most of the time, people are willing to share their opinions, attitudes and fears if they see you as a trustworthy and understanding person. Everyone respects attention and kind treatment, regardless of their culture or background; therefore, you need to avoid focusing on yourself, and instead reach out to others in the office. Once you abandon this egocentric approach, you’ll learn that basic human empathy acts as a universal language.

Try to be accommodating

At the end of the day, the old business world principle of ‘the customer is always right’ can apply to your co-workers and partners too.

For instance, a fast food chain in a predominantly Muslim country needs to follow different rules, especially during Ramadan. There are similar instances all over the world, as well as numerous industries that this can be applied to.

Therefore, if a foreign client, partner or an employee has a culturally-specific request, it’s in your best interest to practice tolerance and be as accommodating as possible.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

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Bridging a cultural gap is not that easy, seeing as how you’re required to reconcile thousands of years of historical, etymological and civilizational differences in the shortest time-span possible. Still, since this is a problem that virtually the entire business world is facing, there is more than enough understanding should you occasionally fail. Nonetheless, the sooner you adopt these positive business practices, the sooner you get to reap the full potential of the optimal multicultural workplace.

About the Author

Nate Vickery is a marketing consultant and author mostly engaged in researching the latest marketing technology trends and practices applicable to startups and SMBs.