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Culture clashes and how to avoid them

January 30, 2009

Hello again,

Schools trying to attract students from all over the world in a competitive market need to train sales and marketing teams in cultural awareness. Below are some points about how culture affects...

...our behaviour because it defines the framework of values that tells us what is appropriate and what is not:

1. Whom do we respect and how do we show it? A key aspect of our behaviour is how we perceive society’s pecking order and how we observe it. In some societies there are strict divisions between social groups, between those seen as occupying top or important positions and those beneath, or between age groups or genders.

Example of a culture clash:

In the UK a customer calls a company with a query and the company employee often gives just a first name. If an overseas customer from a society with a strict sense of social order called, they would consider it impolite of the person to give them a first name as it shows too much familiarity.

2. Taking risks. In the UK a person’s capacity for taking the initiative is generally praised and we don’t like our behaviour to be restricted by too many bureaucratic structures. In many cultures, people’s choices are much more restricted and they prefer to obey clear guidelines.

Example clash:
If you are trying to win a new account from a country with a culture that is unhappy with risk, you might have to be prepared to spend a long time building up trust and establishing a working framework before the account can be granted. If you don’t understand the other side’s culture, you might get impatient and feel they are shilly-shallying unnecessarily.

3. Self-expression and individuality. In the UK we value personal freedom and freedom of speech but many countries have a far more collective attitude. Freedom of speech is subordinated to the good of the group, so individuals are careful about what they say, especially on touchy topics such as religion or politics.

Example clash:
Be careful with humour and satire. We often use jokes as ice-breakers and to help make people relax but risqué jokes, jokes about religion, other nationalities or groups, or politics can be offensive to people from collectivist cultures.

4. Equality of the sexes. In the UK we expect men and women to have the same rights and freedoms. Women are not barred from any jobs, or any activities and they do not expect to behave in a way that shows deference to men. Similarly men do not expect to make concessions to women. In many cultures gender equality is not the norm and men and women are assigned different roles and are expected to behave in different ways, with the male being assertive and the woman being subservient and nurturing.

Example clash:
A woman sales executive leading a team trying to do business with a male-oriented culture will not be perceived as the decision-maker or the person with power. A male sales executive might embarrass a woman employee abroad if he asks her opinion or jokes with her.

5. Time. In the UK we tend to equate punctuality with politeness. We see time as valuable and we do not like to overrun schedules, miss deadlines or have our meetings and telephone calls interrupted. In other parts of the world people are much more relaxed about time and are routinely late, don’t take deadlines seriously and allow meetings to overrun.

Example clash:
If a South American client invites you to a meeting but keeps you waiting for half an hour, you may take that as a personal insult but the client probably did not expect you to arrive on time and simply doesn’t think time and punctuality are important.

6. How we communicate. In some cultures people are very open and direct. They say exactly what they mean and there are no hidden messages. In other cultures, language is used much more obliquely and according to certain principles of politeness or face-saving. In such societies communications come from a whole range of clues including dress, seniority, status symbols. In the UK we are somewhere in the middle of this range, preferring to be indirect if we think what we have to say might be hard for the other person to say.

Example clash:
If we use understatement or irony, the person from a more oblique culture might take us literally. So, if you talk about a ‘slight problem’ to try to soften the impact of a major difficulty, the other person will think you have been deliberately dishonest. Conversely, we can believe that because a client has said ‘yes’, they will be giving us business, but in countries such as Japan, ‘yes’ does not indicate agreement.

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  1. Laura Says:

    it is often a problem within our own culture, or even within my own family!
    some people are punctual and others are not, one of my female friends is assertive, and the other one obedient, the office clerk on the right is solicitous, the one on the left is always sour, etc
    to a certain extent, there are ingrained differences between people from various cultures, but beyond that, i believe individuals melt all those unwritten laws into becoming themselves.

  1. Duncan Says:

    After teaching in China (and loving it) for two years, I fell in love with, and married a Chinese lady. We spent a further year together while I was teaching there, and then moved to Australia. She and her daughter now have permanent residency status in Oz.
    If I said it was plain sailing I would be lying. Because of the incredibly different ways of viewing the world that the two cultures have, it has been a continuous struggle. Love her I do very much, but this is a trip not for the faint-hearted!

  1. Manuel Says:

    I think that in order to succeed in another culture, it would be a good idea if teachers or others who do not want to make embarrassing mistakes, reserched the culture of the country in which they plan to live. Often, travel books have some important informative facts about the culture of the country that one plans to visit.

  1. Bob T. Says:


    I understand what you are saying, but it seems to me to be a one-way street. Teachers should be empathetic, but what you are asserting requires the student to do nothing in return. I get perplexed living in China where everything is expected for the foreigners to do everything the Chinese way, but nothing is required of the Chinese to understand the foreigners. It puts us at a disadvantage and communications often fail. One trick I have to play is to not want anything, not require anything, and this makes my living here much more pleasant. I believe your suggestion needs just a little modification. One has to work at understanding people from another culture, but if nothing comes back, it become a useless one-way conversation, which serves no purpose at all.

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