Tips on Avoiding Cultural Mistakes While Traveling

How to make sure you're doing the right thing while traveling in other cultures

Two businessmen exchanging business cards
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Business travelers heading to other countries should definitely be aware that not everything is the same--whether it's the currency, the time zone, or the culture. To help business travelers avoid potential cultural gap problems About.com Business Travel Guide David A. Kelly interviewed Gayle Cotton, author of the bestselling book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication.

Ms. Cotton is a successful author and a distinguished keynote speaker. In addition, she is President of Circles Of Excellence Inc., as well as internationally-recognized authority on cross-cultural communication.

In part one of this two-part series on cultural gaps for business travelers, I talked with Ms. Cotton about some of the basic cultural issues that confront business travelers. In this article, we explore some specific tips and recommendations for avoiding cultural problems while on a business trip or while traveling in other countries.

Cotton's Most Important Tips for Business Travelers:

  • Show respect - The most important of the global etiquette tips is to show respect for what is important to another person and his or her culture.
  • Show you care - Be proactive and learn about what's important to the cultures you visit or interact with.
  • Strike a balance - Find the comfortable middle ground between your culture and that which you're visiting or working with.
  • Learn the rules and laws - Don't think that you can simply do things "your way" without any consideration for important cultural differences.
  • Know your geography - There is nothing more embarrassing than not knowing the exact location of the country you are visiting or the locality of its neighboring countries.
  • Mind your manners - What is polite in one culture may not be considered so in another, so know your manners for the countries you visit.
  • Know the appropriate attire - It's important to know what is appropriate to wear for both business and social occasions when you visit other countries.
  • Learn the protocol - Since professional protocol varies from culture to culture, you'll want to learn the expected protocol for the cultures with whom you work.
  • Know how to address people - The practice of using first names, surnames, titles, university degrees, or religious designations varies from country to country.
  • Learn a few native words and the correct pronunciations - It's always polite to know a few words in the language of another culture.
  • Clearly enunciate and speak slower - Speak clearly and slightly slower—about 20 percent slower—when communicating across linguistic borders.
  • Define acronyms, slang, and jargon - Define, clarify, or eliminate any acronyms, abbreviations, slang, and jargon that other cultures may not understand.
  • Be careful with humor - Every culture appreciates humor and a good joke. However, some jokes don't translate very well between cultures.
  • Know the appropriate greetings - Greetings are as diverse as the cultures themselves. There are handshakes, kisses, hugs, and bows—and they come in all shapes and sizes.
  • Understand formality - Determine in advance whether a culture is inclined to be more casual or formal in their general communication and business style.
  • Respect time differences - Various cultures relate to the concept of time differently. Some cultures are very flexible with time and others are very prompt.

And last, but not least, Ms. Cotton has one more piece of advice for business travelers heading off to a new culture:

Enjoy yourself! - Do your homework, then relax and connect at the human culture level. If you enjoy doing business with or visiting other cultures, they are likely to enjoy the same with you.