The entrepreneur’s guide to cultural sensitivity in business

Shannon Coward

Cultural sensitivity is paramount in our modern world, with globalisation and transnational business opportunities becoming more important as time goes on. When a potential business partner or new venture can hail from any country and any cultural background, arming yourself with some intercultural knowledge can be an indispensable tool. Here’'s four simple tips on how you can prepare yourself to be as culturally sensitive as possible.

Research into cultural customs is key before any big meeting

A quick google search before any big meeting can be a lifesaver when it comes to intercultural challenges. You’d be surprised how the small things can differ between cultures, with everything from business-card etiquette to the topics of small-talk presenting potential areas of uncomfortableness if you accidentally make a social faux paus. By taking the time to do some research on the cultural customs of the person you’re meeting with – and learning how your culture and theirs differs when it comes to business – you can avoid any potentially business-damaging miscommunication mishaps.

Familiarise yourself with basic intercultural communication theories

If you were willing to move beyond spot-treatments when it came to cultural sensitivity, it may be wise to familiarise yourself with some basic intercultural communication theories like Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. Theories like these are not the only basis of some pretty heavy academic works but can also provide you with a solid framework from which you can analyse how you should act in order to not offend someone from a different culture. By looking at how different cultures compare in terms of fundamental concepts like short-term and long-term orientation, for example, you can easily see where you could go wrong and avoid that spot of bother all together.

Try and see things from their perspective by getting out of your cultural framework

Getting out of your own head can be hard at the best of times and applying this tactic to removing yourself from subconscious cultural responses can be a whole new level of difficult. But thinking outside of your own cultural framework is just as important as having knowledge of somebody else’s culture. If you can identify how your attitudes and behaviour are shaped by your own cultural biases, you can also see how your potential business partner or employee’s cultural framework dictates how they act in relation to you. Think of it as understanding yourself in order to better understand someone else. It might seem like an abstract concept at first, but with a little bit of critical self-reflection you’d be surprised what you’ll learn about the cultural factors that influence why you act the way you do.

Don’t let anxiety or fear of the unknown make you tense

Fear and anxiety in business – like in any other part of life – can completely wreck your plans no matter how much research or effort you put into them. But this is especially prominent when it comes to intercultural sensitivity, because sometimes there are going to be things about somebody else’s culture you just don’t get. Taking the time to recognise the things you really don’t understand is important; as long as you remind yourself that the unknown doesn’t have to be scary. Sure, an abrupt conversation with a potential partner or the way an investor dresses can definitely throw you off, but what’s the point in getting anxious about it? Just take a deep breath and rely on that intercultural knowledge you’ve built up by researching to get you through to the other side.

Shannon Coward

Shannon Coward is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist who spent her formative years surrounded by small business owners. In her free time she bumbles her way around the globe, which you can find evidence of on Instagram, @ofthosewhowander. 

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