Cultural Sensitivities in a Global World

Most people are aware of some cultural differences and sensitivities when doing business globally, but not of how widespread they are.

For example, when doing business in the Middle East, one should never show the bottom of one’s foot.  In Japan, be sure to accept a business card with both hands and understand that the word “no” is rarely ever heard in a business meeting.  These are fairly well known cultural behaviors, but there are nuances that are a bit more subtle.  Did you know that in South Africa, “just now” means “in a while?”   Don’t expect something to be done “just now”; it may happen eventually, sometime… most likely.


When conducting international business it is important, and sometimes crucial, to understand and be sensitive to these cultural nuances, yet still be able to conduct business effectively and efficiently.  In the digital space, where most communication is done via email, IM, Skype, etc., it is increasingly important to communicate clearly with your international counterparts.  Not only must you deal with cultural impediments, but often a language barrier as well.   Doing a bit of research ahead of time or consulting others will help avoid some awkward situations.

You should be careful to refrain from using idiomatic expressions and slang, unless you are sure that the person will understand the meaning.  It is incredibly easy to misconstrue common phrases – “pay through your what?”  Even phone calls can be challenging.  How many times have you been in a conversation with someone and misheard what he or she said?   This problem is compounded ten fold over the phone.  Throw in multiple languages, varying levels of proficiency and accents and it can be quite a mix.


Conducting business while trying to avoid a cultural faux pas is one thing, but what about taking cultural nuances into consideration when developing digital content?  If content is to be utilized globally, consider the layout; if the text will be translated, is there enough room to accommodate longer words?   Some languages are much more verbose.   Consider what character sets will need to be implemented as well, as some character sets may not be available for specific fonts.   Asian characters pose larger issues, such as finding a solution for implementation to keep file size down while maintaining quality.  When it comes to the text itself, if you are writing copy, consider your translator… he or she will have quite a bit of cultural research to do if too much of the local vernacular or slang is used.   Consider utilizing a more global lexicon.  If slang must be used, equivalents can be found, but make sure the layout allows for it.

Globalization is inevitable, so business can no longer remain xenophobic.  However, with increased globalization and the increased prevalence of the” borderless” digital medium comes a wealth of new opportunities, new endeavors and new learnings.   Most of your international counterparts are equally as excited about this, so long as you take the changes going on in their world into account.

Make sure you have plenty of salt on your pumpkin. Translation?  Have good sense.  See why it’s important?