Why is cultural awareness crucial to your success in global business?


Team members celebrating business success

As business becomes more global with every passing year, companies realize they have to adjust the way they operate in order to be successful in different countries. Leadership and management styles that work in one nation don't necessarily work in others.

What is cultural awareness?


At its most basic, cultural awareness is the practice of understanding how your own culture differs from others. What is culture? It’s an umbrella term we use to describe:


  • Social behaviour

  • Values

  • Language

  • Traditions and rituals

  • Common knowledge

  • Food and drink

  • Arts and entertainment


Therefore, cultural awareness can exist on multiple levels. For example, you can have an office culture, a neighbourhood culture, a city culture, a national culture, an ethnic culture, or a religious culture.


Being aware of other cultures means that when you are doing something outside of your own culture, such as attending a wedding in a different faith than your own, not only do you expect it to be different, you are interested in learning about it. When inviting people into your culture, you know they may not be familiar with all of its aspects, so you introduce them in a way that makes others feel welcome.


How does cultural awareness manifest in the workplace?


Workplaces are often a melting pot for many different cultures, especially if they are located in a large urban area and practice diversity in hiring or have many branches in other locations. Being culturally aware means being cognizant that different people will have different values, beliefs, and expectations depending upon their cultural training. It also entails a certain degree of sensitivity, such as:


  • Understanding that coworkers may come from widely different economic backgrounds

  • Realizing people have different educational experiences

  • Knowing that colleagues may face hurdles and prejudices that you don’t due to their sex, orientation, race, or ethnicity

  • Accepting that others have unique ways of demonstrating leadership, teamwork, or conducting business


Most people think of extreme examples of workplace cultural awareness, like not making jokes related to someone’s race or religion. Of course, you want to reinforce those tenets. But you can extend cultural awareness to things like:


  • Understanding that not all workers celebrate the same holidays and may wish to take other days off for their own celebrations

  • Being sensitive to others' histories and asking appropriate questions to show interest and better understand their heritage

  • Recognizing that sexuality and gender are thought of and discussed differently in other cultures and that pronouns may or may not be relevant to some


When you encourage cultural awareness in the workplace, you foster a better environment for collaboration and communication. It shows respect for all members of the company, and it helps avoid misunderstandings, resentments, and conflicts.


Photo by Firdaus Roslan on Unsplash

What is the importance of cultural awareness in global business?


If you conduct business globally, the role of culture in international business is even more important. At your home office, everyone has at least some common ground because you live in the same country. But when you travel or interact with people in other nations, there is typically a greater cultural gap — a gap where you can make offensive mistakes if you are not careful. These norms or etiquette are referred to as cultural competence.


Consider these norms in other cultures:


  • In France, people don’t usually talk about work at social events or over meals.

  • In South Korea, it’s considered rude to blow your nose in public, especially while dining.

  • In Kenya, touch is very meaningful. It’s not proper to touch an elder you don’t know well, and items are never proffered or received with the left hand only.

  • In Japan, people often take off their shoes when entering someone’s home or for certain types of restaurant seating.

  • The Spanish language has formal and informal ways of addressing people, which must be used appropriately to not appear too casual with older people or people you just met.

  • In Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East, bare legs and arms are forbidden; you must wear long pants or a long skirt and cover your arms for modesty.

  • Many Latin Americans are comfortable standing much closer when they speak to each other, and it’s considered rude to back away during a conversation.

  • The colour white in China is reserved for funerals and death. Therefore, never give white flowers as a gift, and even wearing white may not be appropriate in many situations.

  • Workers in the Netherlands and Scandinavia often pause for coffee in the afternoon, during which time people take a break from work, and you may not temporarily receive service at places like banks.

  • In Indonesia, you never drink tea before your host or other important people at the table have taken a first sip.


As you can imagine from these examples, the impact of culture on international business is huge! If you want to make a good impression that furthers business, understanding cultural norms is essential. In many cases, this means building relationships rather than getting down to business quickly. You may even speak the same language but have vastly different social behaviours, such as the difference between queuing in the United States and the United Kingdom.


And, of course, knowing the formal language isn’t the same as being familiar with slang. You might have heard the unfortunate story about how auto manufacturer Honda had to change the name of the “Fitta” model to “Jazz” in some Nordic countries. It turned out that “fitta” is a vulgar term for female genitalia in Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish, which tanked sales of this car for years after the gaffe. Similarly, in the 1970s, Chevrolet had trouble selling their “Nova” in Latin America, as “no va” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.


The best way to practice cultural awareness when doing business globally is to do your homework. Before taking a trip or even having an online meeting, learn a bit about the history, geography, and cultural etiquette of the people and country you are engaging with. But to really build the relationship, it is crucial to ask individuals sincere questions about their experiences to better understand their values and beliefs.


How can you encourage cultural sensitivity with international business?


You could also hire a consultant to advise your workplace on cultural etiquette and standards, which is smart if you’re going to have a long-term relationship with people in an overseas culture. A deep understanding of the importance of cultural sensitivity in business goes a long way and is well worth the investment. With a trainer, you can go into depth on business topics like localizing sales, managerial styles, problem-solving, and the like, as well as more general subjects like male-female interactions, eating, and greetings. Are you expected to bring a gift when visiting someone's home or office? What topics of conversation are taboo in a business setting? Is haggling over price okay?


Other ways to encourage international cultural sensitivity include:


  • Taking language classes

  • Eating out at restaurants with foreign cuisines, run by people from that culture

  • Joining a less formal in-person or online “meetup” group to practice cross-cultural communication in a low-pressure setting

  • Reading books and watching films from other countries

  • Asking members of your own office to share their cultural practices


With today’s emphasis on global markets, it makes good business sense to be culturally aware. But it has to start in your own workplace, and some businesses struggle with that.


If you need help promoting cultural awareness in your company, Tough Convos is here to help. We can get the discussion started, even if it leads to some uncomfortable conversations at first. To learn more or to set up a meeting with your workplace, contact us at 858-876-8176, or reach out online to let us know how we can assist you.