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ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

Five Steps to Avoid Cultural Mistakes

No one wants to find themselves in an embarrassing or offensive situation in a foreign country because of innocent cultural mistakes. Often, this happens to tourists who are traveling abroad. But it can also occur during business encounters, where cultural mistakes can be more impactful. It’s crucial to be aware of cultural differences in a business setting so that reputations aren’t damaged and intended messages are accurately conveyed. Cultural mistakes can be difficult to avoid, especially if the professional is new to international business. To help prepare for foreign interactions, ULG has created a list of tips to keep in mind when conversing across languages and cultures.




Despite rapid globalization, businesses and their employees must understand that each country still has unique cultures and business customs. This is still important to keep in mind even in countries that have adopted English as an official business language. Different countries have different tendencies, mannerisms, and behavioral standards. Often these standards overlap, but not always, so it’s important to be educated on the specific differences and practices.




Before engaging in a conversation with a business associate in a foreign country, understand their customs in regards to the English language. Even though English might not be an official language, many countries have integrated English, either officially or unofficially, into common business practices.

For example, many businessmen and women in China have been exposed to English through education and international travel. As a result, meetings in China involving native English speakers might be conducted in English. In these situations, follow the host’s lead in regards to the language being spoken for the meeting.

Additionally, be sure not to compliment Chinese natives on their English speaking abilities. Many Chinese natives have taken English lessons since childhood and take the compliment as a sign that you are unable find anything better to compliment them on.


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A common formality that overlaps among the American and Chinese cultures is manners. Customs such as standing when others enter a room and waiting to eat or drink before the host apply to both cultures. That being said, Chinese businesspeople aren’t accustomed to dining while having business meetings, so keep business talk to a minimum when out to eat.

Understanding manners such as those listed above can help leave a strong impression with business counterparts and can directly influence the outcome of business meetings.





One of the main causes of embarrassing foreign encounters is foreign travelers relying on their intuition during interactions instead of taking the time to research the country’s cultures. Most common sense is formed by personal experiences within the society and social group that a person is most accustomed to.

However, what is considered common knowledge in one society may not be so in another culture. Be sure to rely on research instead of intuition when conducting conversations across cultures, especially in business settings.




Hiring executives to run foreign offices can be a difficult endeavor. Many companies prefer to hire from within and promote a current employee to oversee the new foreign division. This is acceptable so long as there is a balance between natives and employees sent over to the foreign site; hiring all natives while promoting and American to oversee the division could be seen as a slight to the native employees.


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