Cultural ‘faux pax’ in business

07 Aug, 2020 - 00:08 0 Views

eBusiness Weekly

Sunday the second of August 2020, was a very special day. I decided to “deisolate” and venture out a little and restock groceries. Off I went to Spar Groombridge, where I treated myself to that long forgotten, now very expensive chocolate cake. It was while I was standing outside the shop, waiting for my friends to come and pick me up when the “drama” unfolded.

A husband and wife of Muslim origin had just completed shopping and were pushing their trolley towards the car park.  The wife was wearing a burka (a long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to feet, worn in public by women in many Muslim countries).

But this man who was also pushing his trolley towards the car park thought he could pull a “fast one”.

In his own words and I quote, “Covid-19 will never catch you with that one.” I quickly looked up the meaning of bad joke in my dictionary and categorised this one as one. (A bad joke is not found funny by intended audience) We thank God for masks, any expression that everyone showed was securely covered in their masks.

In hindsight I am sure this man meant well.

But this was a clear example of a “cultural faux pas” (an embarrassing or tactless act or remark in a social situation). The resource book “Diversity Dashboard” the “holy grail” of Cultural Business Etiquette, teaches on behaviour patterns and actions we should adopt when we are in other countries or dealing with these different cultural situations.

I often carry this resource on my travels and the book has helped me a lot in navigating complicated cultural situations.

Deborah Swallow and Eilidah Milnes, the authors of the “Diversity Dashboard” have this to say about Cultural Diversity in Business, ’The global business environment demands a new skill set and the willingness to push ourselves into uncomfortable and uncertain situations.”

They note that in any setting and culture, it is important to treat others with respect.

According to, a website which specialises in reservations for business executives, a lack of cultural business etiquette is impacting companies worldwide.

The research found that 32 percent, of global business travellers admit to having committed a cultural faux pas when travelling internationally on business, and 49 percent, are worried they will unknowingly offend a client or business associate.

In addition, the website revealed that, 45 percent, of business travellers had witnessed a colleague or business associates from other countries make a cultural slip-up.

The report also revealed that, some of the top countries who offend the most were; Italy, United States of America, South Africa, Germany and Spain.

The biggest cultural business faux pax were: being on a mobile phone, not greeting people appropriately, inappropriate attire, speaking too loudly and not responding to emails within 24 hours.

For example, other research that was conducted, revealed that, 97 percent of British bosses think they should make a greater effort to learn about the business etiquette of other cultures.

So how can we navigate around the cultural conundrum and avoid some of the faux pax that my Spar friend unfortunately fell into?

Know thyself and your destination

According to the “Diversity Dashboard”, it is important for people to imagine themselves in a plane navigating a different cultural divide.

To this end it is quite important to understand oneself and what your triggers are. For example, decorum is also of utmost importance when visiting foreign lands. On a workshop visit to Lesotho, I found myself at a workshop after drinks party, gaping in disbelief at a respected professor who had had one too many.

While looking at me he declared that his main goal in life was to marry a Zimbabwean woman (He was about 70).

In another youth workshop, in Malawi, one brave South African young lady, made this jaw dropping peculiar announcement. “Dear facilitator I would just like to say that please no knocking on people’s doors in the dead of the night.”

Apparently the culprits were well known. I was to hear this announcement countless times in other workshops.

Secondly, it is very helpful to conduct a thorough research on the country that you are visiting.  Conduct a thorough investigation on the food, dress, and business Organisation you are visiting.

While visiting other countries, a sizable number of “faux pax” mostly occur at the dining table. For example, different countries have diverse attitudes towards tipping. If you tip a waiter in Japan they are likely to get offended, while in the United States, France, Italy and Hungary you are expected to give a gratuity of 10-15 percent.

Degrees of formality

The rules of formality differ in different cultures.

For example, Britain, Canada, America and Australia prefer a more relaxed style of formality and are quick to relate on a first name basis.

On the other hand, hierarchical   societies tend to be more formal as there is a great “divide’ between those at the top and the bottom, such as many African, Middle Eastern, Russian, Asian and South American cultures where people are extremely conscious of status.

When navigating these latter cultures one has to be aware of the nature of formality.

In Italy there is dress conduct, a code of coffee drinking, it is part of their “bella figura” culture which denotes beautiful living.

In the Southern American countries open shirts are just part of the casualness they are used to and you will certainly not go to dinner in an open shirt in Italy.

Gender sensitivity

Gender sensitivity has always been a hotly debated issue.

However, the reality of the situation is that, different countries have conflicting views on gender empowerment? Nordic countries such as, Norway, Sweden and Finland, are the 5 most gender equal cultures in the world.

For example, Norway requires that, 40 percent of its board members are women.  On the other end of the spectrum, are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who have different views of how women should be treated in the workplace.

The Middle East is very high on the masculine side. In Saudi Arabia women, should cover up, and should always have a male escort. It is thus important for women travelling to these countries to always enquire what type of dressing is acceptable.

In addition, if you are meeting with a male client in Saudi Arabia, it is always essential to check with your business counterparts in that country, whether you will be meeting the client in person.

Time deadlines

The Danish and Germans are very particular about time and they will be offended if one turned up late for an appointment. In other cultures, such as in Latin America, time is fluid and lateness is not really a big deal.

In our continent, we have even brag that “there is no hurry in Africa”.

However, within the workplace some cultures such as the United States are deadline obsessed, and time commitments in these cultures are therefore taken seriously.

Commitment is also demanded in all partnership projects.


Some cultures use direct communication techniques; thus deals are concluded more quickly. However, direct communicators are often perceived as insensitive and immature. In, Asian cultures communication is much slower and mostly used to build relationships.

In Zimbabwe hierarchy is important and it manifests itself in our introductions where a long line of qualifications precedes a speech.

In India addressing business associates is equally important.

In conclusion, cultural astuteness is very important when doing business across different countries.

I will conclude with a quote from Eilidh Milnes “The most ordinary thing in the world is to see things through your own eyes. The most extraordinary thing is to see things through the eyes of others”.

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