Mastering cultural nuances when working abroad

  • business woman smiling and shaking hands
Published on 2023-12-01 at 10:00 by Asaël Häzaq
You've just arrived in your host country or lived there for some time. You feel comfortable in your new job and looking forward to a long stay in your host country. Still, there's one important area in which you still have a lot to learn: cultural nuances. A glance, a smile, or a hug may carry diverse meanings depending on the context and cultural background. Here are some tips for adapting and integrating them into your daily routine.

Cultural traits are a language on their own

Expressing approval or disapproval through nods, openly agreeing or not, speaking assertively or maintaining a reserved tone, being tactile, or maintaining a certain distance—these are all cultural nuances that form a language of their own. Mastering these cues is essential to enhance your communication with individuals from different cultures. It's important to note that the goal is not to rely on stereotypes or generalize traits to an entire population. There are many exceptions to the scenarios described below. It's more a question of highlighting cultural traits present in one or more countries and treating them as a skill to be learned, similar to learning a new language.


Whether you're attending a customer meeting, a business conference, or a casual gathering with colleagues, the importance placed on punctuality varies across different countries. In Germany and Japan, being on time means being ahead of schedule. Discipline and respect for rules are part of their cultural traits. The same commitment to punctuality is observed in the United States and Canada, where keeping customers waiting is not the norm. In contrast, French culture is often perceived as more lenient regarding punctuality, with a tolerated "quarter of an hour late." However, this perception may vary depending on the nature of the appointment and the hierarchical position of the individuals involved. For crucial engagements, like closing a deal with a customer, arriving late is generally unthinkable.

Greetings, with or without touching

Should you shake hands with your customer or colleague? Should you kiss them on the cheeks or hug them? A simple greeting or expression of sympathy can lead to a diplomatic incident. Surprisingly, these gestures, which might be harmless in your home country, can linger in the memory of others, resurfacing even after several months in the host country. So be cautious about extending your hand or, even more so, leaning in for a kiss. Kissing on the cheeks is originally a cultural tradition in France. In African and Asian countries, maintaining a respectful distance is the norm. In South Korea, a subtle nod of the head will do — forget about a 90° tilt unless you're aiming for a good laugh. The same respectful distance applies in the USA, Canada and India. On the contrary, in Brazil, a hug will do.

The voice and tone

Perhaps no one has ever mentioned that you're loud when speaking. In office corridors, your voice stands out above the rest. During phone conversations, your volume easily overpowers the person on the other end, giving the impression that you're dominating the space, being too overwhelming, and potentially irritating your colleagues and superiors. On the flip side, it could be the opposite: your voice may be too low, and that could be a problem, too. It might seem like you're disengaged or not sufficiently involved in the company. Once again, it's a question of culture. In Spain, you won't be criticized for speaking up, and it's worth noting that noise levels tend to be higher than in other countries. People tend to adjust naturally to the ambient noise, reflecting the environment rather than a matter of personal style. (Of course, it's important to acknowledge that there are numerous exceptions, both in Spain and elsewhere.) On the contrary, there's no need to raise your voice in Japan. At best, you might be perceived as a bit too energetic and, at worst, as disrespectful.

Body language

Intercultural training usually prepares you for life in your host country, yet in the workplace, effective communication may still face obstacles due to cultural misunderstandings. In India, for instance, expressing both "yes" and "no" goes beyond mere verbal skills; it involves understanding and adeptly using body language, including the famous nod of the head. Becoming proficient in this non-verbal communication requires keen observation and hands-on practice. What might appear as a "no" (a head turn from left to right) could actually signify a "yes" in India. However, it's crucial to recognize that a "yes" doesn't necessarily imply agreement; it could also mean "I hear you," inviting you to continue the conversation.

Unlike in France, where a straightforward "no" is the norm, in India, conveying a negative response involves a different approach. This is another cultural aspect that's essential to understand and interpret the reactions of your Indian manager and colleagues accurately. On the flip side, in the United States, your manager will openly express either enthusiasm or disapproval without hesitation. Communication in the USA tends to be direct and to the point. In contrast, in other countries, there is a preference for non-verbal and less frontal communication.

Should you always smile at work?

Lastly, let's explore the realm of smiles and emotions. Is it appropriate to smile always, even if it means forcing one? You might believe you're doing the right thing by smiling brightly to everyone around. After all, a smiling face is generally more welcome than a grumpy one. Shouldn't smiling be a universally accepted cultural norm? Yes, but it's important to know the cultural nuances associated with a smile. People frequently mention that Americans smile a lot. The smiling culture is so deeply ingrained that it is refered to as the "American smile": broad, genuine, and showcasing impeccably white teeth. Although the demand for dental whitening is thriving in the United States (as well as in many other countries), it doesn't fully account for the cultural phenomenon of the "American smile."

In the United States, this widespread smile is linked to the nation's migration history. It's often claimed that the US, a land of immigrants, is where people smile the most, even at work. Smiling serves as an effective means of establishing a comforting atmosphere, especially among individuals from diverse cultures, making communication smoother. In the United States, positive emotions like joy and benevolence are openly expressed and highly appreciated. In fact, benevolence is one of Canada's cultural characteristics as well. However, France, despite being a land of immigration, doesn't really have this trait. Smiling excessively in France may raise suspicions among your French counterparts. In China, such exuberance might be perceived as agitation. When observing your superiors and contacts, you will see that they are less prone to overt displays of joy. In China, conveying your emotions with a sense of calmness is advisable, making your smiles more discreet.

It's crucial to differentiate between different types of smiles. In some countries, smiling can be interpreted as a symbol of superiority rather than benevolence; it may convey dominance. In other cultures, smiling is a means to foster a positive and communicative environment. While understanding these intercultural nuances is important, some advise against forcing a smile when you're not genuinely inclined to do so. Of course, it's essential not to appear sullen in front of colleagues or customers, but there's also a caution against over-committing to constant smiling. Expressing emotions can indeed be a delicate balancing act at times.