Business culture Level 6 Study Materials

More than a Handshake: How to bridge the cultural divide between clients and colleagues.

So how can you make sure you aren't making problems with your clients?

“Thus we all function in some respects more like Eastern some of the time and more like Westerners some of the time. A shift in characteristic social practices could therefore be expected to produce a shift in typical patterns of perception and thought”

Robert E. Nisbett, Author of The Geography of Thought

A while back, I had an old University friend contact me about a business trip his boss was going on. He was working in Germany, his business trip was somewhere outside of Seoul, and was asking me about how to make an effective first impression as well as the dos or don’ts people should be aware of when doing business in Korea.

I will admit that I found the question a little bit odd in how particular and peculiar the questions were, like if his boss should bring a present or not, and if he should bring a present, what type of present would be acceptable or not, and would X be more acceptable or would Y be more acceptable?

Although he was clearly wanting to do his best for his boss so that he could leave his Korean counterparts with the best impression possible, it all was a bit superfluous. Knowing which gift to bring may not necessarily seal the deal between you and your international client. Your client probably will probably be thankful for the gift, but probably won’t think as much about it as you are. That being said; be a little aware of obvious no-nos, like bringing Omaha steaks and pork sausages to your counterpart in Mumbai. It can be surprising how people can even miss that type of obvious social faux-pas.

Rather than spending all the time thinking about what present to bring could be better spent working on learning more about the demands of the local economy or better preparing your presentation for why to invest in your product.

The point here is not about sweating the small stuff. The goal should be how to best nurture a good rapport with your clients so that the small stuff ends up not mattering. A lot of my thoughts on this come from Dr. Richard E. Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought, which focuses on how people in different parts of the world think, react, and categorize things. It largely focusing on differences between Western and Eastern countries, although it is a major misnomer to think that all “Eastern” and all “Western” people think the same way. Additionally, I will be discussing my own anecdotal or personal experience to discuss ways to bridge the international divide.

So how do you build a good relationship with your Singaporean or Russian counterpart? Let’s look at a few tips:

1. Be aware. Be aware. Be aware. (Body language, culture, all). I had a coworker tell me about a recent experience she had with a client. He was very interested in learning Western etiquette because he was going to the US for a business trip. He tended to be quite frigidity and kept checking his phone to see what time it was. Again. And again. After ten minutes, she had enough; she explained that something like checking your phone every other minute would come off as very rude to someone in the US. The client was a bit shocked, and slightly embarrassed; he was not aware that he was checking his phone so much, and that checking your phone again and again might be seen as insulting.

I’m using this story because it illustrates how easy it to make a social faux-pas if you are not paying attention to how you are presenting yourself. Before you say your first “hello” to a foreign coworker, you will be giving an impression of who you are to them. We all make judgement based on first impression, and first impressions can be important for further building a relationship.

This can work in two different ways: when it comes to things more universal (say, greeting someone) it is important to be aware of your body language and give a good hello. On the other hand, more local aspects (like greeting someone with a bow, which is common here in Korea)  may be okay to not do. People will recognize that you are not from that part of the world, and so if you don’t know the particulars of doing something locals can easily forgive you.

That being said, however, being aware of how you carry yourself, and how others who may not share your same cultural background to yourself is very important. So, I like to do the following:

  1. Pick a particular habit or action you do every day (for me, I am very impatient and cross the street before the light changes if there are no cars).
  2. And ask yourself if you have seen this habit by other people who live in the same area as you (in my case, crossing whenever tends to be a very New Jersey/New York area thing to do, so this is okay and not a weird personal habit).
  3. If it is common in your area, try to imagine doing that same action in other places you have visited; did you see a lot of people crossing the street before the light turned when you went to Washington DC, or Boston, or Chicago, or New Orleans? Maybe expand it to countries that might have a shared language and border; did people in Toronto or Vancouver cross the street before crossing?
  4. And then finally, ask yourself how you might look in a place or situation when no one else does that action, and you are not from that area. Could it be potentially rude or dangerous? Would it make it obvious that you don’t fit in? (yes). If it makes it obvious you don’t fit in, could it be seen as rude or insulting to people?

This is of course a bit of a paradox: in order to be aware of the impression people have of you, you need to be aware of the little things you do that might leave an impression on people. Figuring this out, and spending time reflecting on yourself and where you are from is very important. You might say this is one of the hidden benefits of learning a language; realize what you assume everyone else does and realizing that’s unique to your home, language, and culture.

2. Be aware of differences, but realize differences aren’t vast. So we just talked about the fact that people from different places might do things differently, and what you might think of as normal (say, crossing the street before the light changes colors) might come off as rude. This is quite common; something you think as normal might seem suddenly rude or alien in another context. But here’s the truth; there tends to be a lot more in common between people than what divides people.

The famed British poet Rudyard Kipling once wrote “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” and while the rest of the quote tends to be forgotten and ignored (“Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat / but there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, / When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!) , people particularly like to look at that quote as saying something like “Eastern countries and Western countries are different,” and have a laser-like focus on all the differences to the point of overemphasizing them. The idea here is to not do that. Especially if you have a foreign client.

Think of it in a practical, business setting. You are working with someone because you need to work with them. In order to work with them, you need to build common ground. Working with means…well…working with someone. Start asking polite, thoughtful questions about who your client is, what they want, and so on. Personalities are personalities, and people are people after all.

Yet what gets lost is that differences don’t really matter much when compared to what we all share. This is a bit of a cliche, but it’s an important cliche, an often repeated idea that has lost it’s uniqueness or value over time. In fact, maybe that’s why it’s a cliche; it seems so obvious that it needs to be repeated again and and again because everyone keeps forgetting it. People from all over the world share similar stories to yourself; they have that one coworker who gossips all the time, or are worried about their son or daughter and his or her grades in schools. Finding what we share and using that as a bridge to further strengthen a relationship is vital, and surprisingly not that hard. The difference is how people might express those common facets, and simply being aware that people will express things differently and help further develop your rapport with a client.

I will let Dr. Nisbett give his own story below:

When I was in China in 1982, toward the end of the Cultural Revolution…the culture was and is dramatically different from that of the West in ways that I could not have articulated at the time…yet within three weeks I found that I was able to gossip with my hosts about other Chinese. We could talk about Fung’s decent and humility, Chan’s arrogance, Lin’s reserve, understanding each other perfectly.



Point being, when you start to see people as people and not just carbon-cutouts of a particular cultural milieu devoid of individuality, things work better.

3. Assuming makes an ass out of u (you) and me

This is very much related to part one about being aware of how you present yourself. This one though, is slightly funny and very important. I find that many people have certain assumptions about other countries. Some of them are correct, and we all often make assumptions based on things we have read or heard from other people. Sometimes, we think what is unique to our part of the world actually is quite popular, and what we assume as strange or foreign to others coming into our culture actually turns out to be not too strange for strangers.

I have seen this first hand, and have fallen into this as well. Sometimes, it might be something quite silly; when I taught younger children here in Korea, many kids were amazed that I have eaten kimchi, the famed spiced pickled cabbage eaten with everything here in Korea. Some were amazed that I didn’t think it was spicy. Many people here in South Korea don’t seem to think Western people eat spicy food or kimchi, and it has become a running joke among many expats here to ask “do you eat kimchi?”.

Kids make all sorts of assumptions. Adults do to. The difference between adults and kids is that kids don’t have the tools yet to figure out nuance that non-Koreans might know about kimchi. Adults, on the other hand, have the ability to understand nuance and sometimes fail to exercise it.

So what should you do? I am a fan of the phrase “are you familiar with…?” rather than asking bluntly “do you know…?” or “do you not know…?”. It sounds a lot more gentle than a more blunt know/don’t know; the person you are talking to might have heard about the subject you are talking about, or might have heard about it but wants more knowledge, and so on.

Some of them can be quite infuriating; I’ve had a Western guys ask me about “women in Korea”. I will say that I really dislike this question. In fact, I hate it. It makes me disgusted. Because, this often leads into questions about whether Korean women are passive and subservient, which is connected to some very dark and creepy stereotypes about Asian women in general that, well, make me cringe while writing this. This also comes off as insulting, due to South Korea’s experiences under Japanese colonization, when thousands of women were kept as sex slaves for the Japanese military. Don’t assume though that this is just some creepy western guys, and that creepy asshole-ness is limited to western men. I have heard some pretty awful comments about Korean men from some Western women, some pretty awful things about Vietnamese women from Korean men, some pretty awful things about Western men from Bangladeshi women, and so on (I am sure I will write another anecdotal story about an experience I had in Washington DC a few years back).

So, how might this question be rephrased so you do not come off creepy or racist? Ask something more culture specific and open ended; try “what is the dating culture like in Korea?” or “how do people in Korea feel about…?”.Asking about how people feel and think, rather than assuming all people from a country behave a certain way can be very helpful for not falling into bad cultural traps.

If anything, I hope I leave you all with this message, that being aware of yourself and of others different from you goes a long way. Not everything is like the way you see it, and being a truly good person that is well adjusted in your local area as well as the world involves you just simply being aware.

first impression – (phrasal noun) what a person thinks when they first meet you
 – (phrasal noun) a mistake related to manners or conduct
 (noun) – a person who is working in an opposite but similar position to another
sweating the small stuff 
(phrasal verb) – to worry about unimportant things
anecdotal (adj) – something based on personal observation or reports
bridge the divide 
(phrasal verb) – to connect with someone who is different in opinion, culture, belief, or other ways.
cliche (noun) – a sentence or phrase that is popular but has lost it’s feeling of importance because everyone knows it. Some common cliches might be “time will tell” or “opposites attract”. 
laser-like (adj) – very narrow, focused
(noun) – surroundings, especially cultural or social surroundings
(adj) – very submissive, willing to do any command without protest
cringe (verb) – To shrink, to feel extremely awkward or repulsed by something


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