Skip to main content
UKTI blog

Considering culture

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Export, Language and culture

Jack Porteous , Language and Culture Adviser for UKTI London, blogs on the importance of cultural considerations when doing business overseas.

Taking your business abroad can be challenging – your first meeting in a new market can be less like stepping out and more like being catapulted out of your comfort zone. It is important to prepare for the different customs and business practices of your potential client, customer or partner, both to make a good impression and so you feel a little less like a fish out of water. Here are my top tips for things to think about before you step into the boardroom:

Business Cards: While for us they are fairly functional objects, in some markets, particularly in the Far East, the business card is king. Make sure you have enough with you, translate one side into the local language if you have the time, and treat the cards with the same respect you intend to treat your business relationship. Knowing how to exchange cards and what to do with cards you receive can help you make the right impression from the start of the meeting.

Handshakes: Don’t worry, this shouldn’t be too hard – nowhere in the world do you have to be a contortionist to shake someone’s hand. It’s important to consider the role that gender plays in a society – in many countries it is expected that men wait for women to offer their hand rather than offering theirs. Remember that in some cultures, such as Japan, a small bow is more common than a handshake.

Building a personal relationship: Small talk might seem strange at formal business meetings, but in some cultures it is an insult to not make an effort to engage in chit-chat. Make sure you know how much is expected, try to be genuinely interested in the other person, and stick to safe topics – family, hobbies, and complimenting the country you are visiting are sure to be secure territory.

Small talk might seem strange at formal business meetings, but in some cultures it is an insult to not make an effort to engage in chit-chat
Small talk might seem strange at formal business meetings, but in some cultures it is an insult to not make an effort to engage in chit-chat


Personal space: East Asians might have a slightly less rigid concept of personal space than you’d like, while in other countries you’re best to give your counterpart plenty of room. Try not to let this affect you but if you feel uncomfortable try to broach the topic in a sensitive way without causing confrontation.

Direct communication: ‘No’ is a difficult word in many parts of the world, and one that is often avoiding as being overly direct. Bahasa Indonesia reputed has at least 12 ways of saying ‘no’ without saying no, and in China it is more common to hear “let me think about it” or a similar, more polite phrase.

Make an effort: Try to make some effort in the local language – even if it’s just a basic greeting, making sure you can pronounce names correctly, or learning some forms of address. This will help you show respect and can go a long way towards getting your new relationship off on the right footing.

Socialise: It’s likely that you’ll be asked to try some local food or drink, some of which might not seem wholly appetising. It’s best to give it a go, but if you have any problems with consuming particular foods or drinks it’s good to have a strategy to deal with how to turn things down politely before you reach the restaurant.

Be able to laugh at yourself: If you do make a cultural faux pas, acknowledge it, apologise if necessary, and deal with it in good humour. Making the effort makes a good impression, even if you’re not getting it exactly right every time.

Getting the specifics right might not secure a deal for your business, but getting it horribly wrong could damage your chances. It’s important to do some research before you go and be as prepared as you can. For advice on Language and Culture Issues, please contact your regional UKTI Language and Culture Adviser - you can find contact details for your local UKTI office here.




Sharing and comments

Share this page