Brazil and UK doing business

Cultural Challenges in International Business

In my professional trajectory, I have seen first-hand the difficulty of doing business across cultures. I have seen this long before I became an intercultural trainer or even a linguist. My experience has shown me that these challenges arise both from a lack of knowledge of other cultures, which leads to frustrated expectations, and the characteristics of our own cultures.

When we interact with other cultures, we often expect superficial differences. We expect people to dress differently, to eat foods we may consider unusual, and to celebrate holidays which are foreign to us. The truth is that cultural differences go much deeper than that. They affect our values, how we express ourselves, and which behaviours we consider appropriate or inappropriate. Culture does not negate or erase human individuality, but it does help shape who we are and how we see the world.

Our cultures permeate every aspect of our lives, and that includes business. Though businesses across the globe operate with similar goals and success metrics, there is more to workplaces than bottom lines, profits, or losses. The way we interact with our colleagues, how leaders and managers communicate with their employees, and even how we perceive time management are all factors which impact our professional lives. And they are all affected by culture.

It is always important to keep in mind that culture is not always restricted by national borders. They may vary within them, as well as carry on beyond them. In Brazil, my home country, attitudes and cultures are very different depending on the region or the state. At the same time, people who live closer to Brazil’s borders may have more in common with citizens of neighbouring countries than with counterparts from other regions. The Gaúcho/Gaucho culture found in the south of Brazil is shared by Argentinians and Uruguayans, but not by Brazilians from the north region, for example.

Cultural Differences in Business

Cultural specificities can take on enormous proportions when we deal with people from other backgrounds in a business environment. Depending on where you come from, you may perceive an employee who promptly stops working when his shift has ended differently. Is he acting correctly, or is he lazy? Likewise, is an employee who demonstrates a higher level of friendliness in the office being inappropriate and not showing enough propriety in the workplace? Or is the colleague who does not make jokes (or laugh at them) unpleasant and not working hard enough to become part of the team? Is your colleague rude for saying “no” directly? Or would he be wasting your time and causing confusion if instead of just saying “no”, he tried to find indirect ways of turning you down?

Levels of informality, hierarchical structures, and directness of communication can really impact how we are perceived by our international colleagues. There are also other factors which will certainly come into play when working with overseas teams, such as how women are perceived in their workplace, how much initiative employees feel they may take, and even how punctual they may be. The more different the cultures, the bigger the challenges.

Adapting to Cultural Differences in Business Environments

In my own experience, both as someone who has always worked with multicultural teams and as an intercultural trainer, preparing your team to work with overseas colleagues is a very productive initiative, as it can help international teams cooperate more productively. There are two main benefits to this. The first is that educating your team on the foreign business culture they will be facing will not only prepare them for the behaviours they will most likely encounter, but it will also help them understand these behaviours better. This will avoid unnecessary discomforts and will also help them adapt their own behaviour. The apparent coldness of your colleague does not mean he is looking down on you, nor is his more overt friendliness a sign that he is not taking his job seriously. Likewise, if employees know a certain culture considers something offensive, they will most likely avoid said behaviour.

Cross-cultural training will also help your team prepare for the seeming cultural contradictions their colleagues will demonstrate. Brazilians, for example, are talkative and expressive. They will quickly develop a sense of closeness and informality with their colleagues, but at the same time they use high-context language, relying heavily on complex context-based, non-verbal, and indirect forms of communication. Giving your team the proper tools to understand their international colleagues will also help them understand when a specific behaviour is to be expected and when it is unusual even in the other person’s cultural context.

The second is that training helps dispel ideas that certain workplace behaviours are right, and others are wrong. Your international colleagues are not doing business the wrong way, and neither are you or your team. Differences are just that: differences. We all have opinions and preferences, but differences are inevitable and a team that is equipped to deal in cross-cultural settings is set up for success.