Learning & Development, Talent

Etiquette and Language Skills for Global Business

The ability to conduct business globally at all levels of an organization creates many opportunities, but it isn’t without its challenges and risks. With the rise in remote work and new technologies, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, businesses are realizing that the opportunity to go global is rapidly increasing.

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In fact, while managers often overestimate the significance of global business as a proportion of overall corporate activity, it is continuing to grow, even in the current geopolitical climate.

Opening Up Global Lines of Communication

Not only does global business open up larger markets to companies, but it’s also becoming increasingly practical to engage with customers and business partners around the globe. Improvements in technology make it easier than ever to interact and conduct business from virtually anywhere in the world.

Gone are the days when cross-border interaction came primarily in the form of top executives’ flying around the world to meet with other top executives. With modern telecommunications tools, it’s both inexpensive and easy for anyone in a company to communicate internationally.

This means employees at all levels could be interacting with customers, sales prospects, and business partners from around the world. Yet, while this creates countless opportunities for businesses, staff members’ engaging with foreign businesses on an organization’s behalf could also create risks of miscommunication, ignorance of social norms and customs, and even regulatory issues.

Ensuring Employees Know the Fundamentals

That’s why businesses need to ensure all employees have a baseline understanding of the key elements of international business. Obviously, the focus should be on the parts of the world where the company is or most likely will be conducting business.

Here are a few key items to focus on as a starting point:

  • Manners and taboos: Eye contact, greetings, and even hand gestures and posture can be interpreted very differently around the world. It’s important employees know what messages they are sending when communicating globally.
  • Laws and regulations: Laws in various international jurisdictions may put restrictions or requirements on what staff can say or do when interacting with those in other countries. For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) puts a huge emphasis on privacy and the proper handling of personal information.
  • Overall climate: Your staff don’t necessarily need to be experts on every country you’re engaged with, but they should have a basic understanding of such issues as the current economic, social, and political climate.

Cultural Norms in the New Normal

A great deal of comedy has been caused because of miscommunications and unintentional insults resulting from culture clashes among well-meaning individuals from different parts of the globe or even within the same country! Expectations around gift-giving, slang phrases, and even eye contact can be surprising to many employees, from frontline customer service staff to top company executives.

Many companies’ market is a global market, with potential customers located worldwide. This also means the potential business partners serving these far-flung markets could similarly be diverse. And the potentially permanent shift to remote work—beginning as a temporary response to the COVID-19 pandemic—means that, more than ever before, coworkers could also be located virtually anywhere in the world.

Simple Greetings and Phrases

It’s unnecessary and unrealistic to ask staff to master the native language of every culture they might be doing business with. Start small with basic phrases and greetings. It’s amazing how far something as simple as saying “hello” or “thank you” in someone’s native language can go in helping build strong relationships.

Basics of Etiquette for Commonly Contacted Cultures

Learning about etiquette and basic phrases of new cultures can certainly be time-consuming. If staff are going to put the effort in, that effort should be spent where it counts. Focus on cultures and regions where the most contact is likely. A company opening a new branch in Mexico should obviously spend more time learning about Mexican and Latin American culture and the Spanish language than the Chinese culture and language, for instance.

Simply Be Aware that Cultural Differences Exist

Employees don’t necessarily need to be experts in the etiquette of every culture around the globe. While it may make sense to focus on some of the basics of the cultures that may be interacted with regularly, simply being aware that differences may exist is often a good starting point. This knowledge alone should prompt some quick research into the basics of etiquette in any unfamiliar culture an employee might interact with.

Just because a company’s business is going global doesn’t mean its staff need to suddenly be world culture experts. When putting any staff member, from frontline to executive, in front of customers or business partners from other parts of the globe, companies should ensure that person has the tools needed to make the best impression possible on behalf of the organization.