Understanding Cultural Differences in Business – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Take off your shoes and ask for slippers.” – Anne Tsui [2]

Who among us has not heard the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? Yet have we Americans really grasped what that truly means? The phrase, once noted in 1777 by Pope Clement XIV, “cum Romanus eris”, means, don’t be alarmed by local customs. If everyone in Rome takes an afternoon nap, you do the same. (Ginger, “When in Rome, do as the Romans Do”, November 2020”). When visiting people in the middle east who sit on the floor and eat with their hands, it’s polite for you to join them. And in the United Kingdom, follow the rules for afternoon tea which include refraining from blowing on tea when it’s hot. Blowing is considered rude behavior. To Americans. These customs may seem strange and unconventional, however, when visiting any country outside the United States, it’s important to blend in with the natives, especially if you are there representing your company and to get work done.

Years ago, while my husband was working in Australia, we visited the home of a Japanese couple. We were in Canberra, the county’s capital city, full of people connected to embassies from all over the world. Before entering the couple’s house, every guest was asked to remove their shoes. The couple offered each guest a pair of paper slippers to wear while visiting. Many of us were a little put off. Removing shoes was unexpected. But we all cooperated and had a lovely evening knowing we were honoring their culture.

It’s critical for business leaders to gain international experience. And it’s important not to be viewed as an “ugly American” while there. When we travel on business to other countries we are obligated to remember, while we represent our company, we also represent our country. Before embarking on an overseas trip, whether for a few days or for a whole year, take the time to learn the culture of the country where you will be working. Committing cultural gaffes is not career ending, but it’s far from career enhancing, either.

You may be sent packing quickly if you give two thumbs up or a “peace” sign in Greece. These hand gestures are considered highly insulting and rude in that country.

Cultural sensitivity is a critical topic to consider, because in many organizations, a quick path to the top is includes a tour of duty overseas. In fact, international experience is more likely to help propel your career forward and may be a significant part of your leadership rotation. People in leadership positions, in any large organization, sooner or later, will have to work internationally. So, it’s best to get educated on the customs, mores, and social preferences of your host country, even if it’s the culture of a country similar to ours, such as Canada, Australia or the UK. Each has specific cultural aspects that should not be overlooked.

There are multiple resources for businesspeople to refer to when planning an overseas trip. A quick search includes some of what I’ve provided here, however, I recommend a detailed examination, even connecting with the country’s local consulate or the US State Department before embarking on your stay. You want to avoid any appearances of impropriety.

In W.P. Carey’s 2006 article published by the University of Arizona, “Take Off Your Shoes and Ask for Slippers”,[3] he describes the work of two scholars, Anne Tsu and Xiao-Ping Chen, who explore the dichotomy faced by Western businesses that desire to establish operations in culturally different societies and yet maintain their own corporate values.

Similarly, in the article “Culture Shock: Integrating Indian immigrants in the IT Workplace,” (Enterprise Software, June 2020) Suman Bolar points out that “IT workers from India have been enormously successful, but many Indian workers…new to the US still experience culture shock”.[4]  

Additionally, the web site offers detailed advice covering 39 countries sharing insight into the impact of cultural differences in global commerce dealings. [5]

All three publications highlight the question facing multi-national organizations: How do we understand cultural differences in order to integrate workers into a successful cross-cultural business model?

Major corporations, expanding, their production and services outside their homelands, need to assist their overseas employees to become more acculturated to the new country and make a smooth transition from their home cultures into a new set of values and mores. Employers worldwide face this question, but even more so since the world economy has become so interdependent. This challenging dilemma established the need for an undertaking such as the GLOBE study, as well as several scholarly investigations, to support successful multicultural business operations across the globe.

The GLOBE cultural dimension rankings demonstrate numerous areas for cultural misunderstanding and misinterpretation. The sources cited above reveal some interesting case studies and creative solutions some companies used to overcome cultural barriers in successful global operations.

From a purely personal perspective, living in Australia for a year was quite an object lesson in cultural differences. Australians are great partiers, and living next to a hotel with a bar, we learned that the Aussies like to party all night. In fact, food trucks would pull up outside our apartment building between 2:00 and 3:00AM to serve the people who brought their party into the street. After several nights of this, we called the police, who told us they couldn’t do anything about it. Apparently, there are no limits to the time of day drinking and partying can take place in the capital city of Australia.

Also, our hard charging employees would dutifully arrive at work at 7:00AM, only to find the offices completely empty. Aussies don’t start their day until 9:00AM, so the only people the US employees could connect to were their compatriots back home. It was 4:00PM in the Eastern US, and there were still plenty of people at work. In fact, traffic in the capital city of Canberra at 7:00AM was non-existent, except for milk trucks and newspaper deliveries. The American expats began to believe that the Aussies had a “manana” work ethic.

The Carey article cites the example of Starbuck’s conundrum when attempting to integrate their core values of teamwork, equal participation, and diversity into the moderate to high power distance[6] culture of South Korea. Imagine the shock of the Starbucks executives when their egalitarian ideals were bluntly rejected by South Koreans. Mangers were refusing to clean toilets, and wholesale rejected the concept of using first names. However, these typical American values are not rooted in the culture of South Korea.

To preserve its core values, Starbucks came up with a creative solution: all the Korean employees would choose an English first name. Everyone working at Starbucks was referred to by that English first name only, eliminating the Korean’s need for a title and last name, showing position and status in a work setting. This solution preserved their cultural deference to hierarchy and authority (labeled ‘uncertainty avoidance’ in the GLOBE taxonomy) and was considered a win-win solution.[7]

Starbucks was also faced with conflicts regarding their corporate value of teamwork and equality, meaning; all employees share all tasks, including washing dishes and cleaning toilets. This meant that male employees would have to engage in these tasks typically performed only by women. To overcome this cultural barrier, Starbucks capitalized on the Korean affinity for “role-modeling and imitating behaviors of top leaders.”[8] According to Carey’s sources, role modeling is effective in changing behaviors in high power distance cultures.

“Starbucks had the international director for the company’s headquarters do all these activities and even hung a picture of himself cleaning the toilet.”[9] This helped the male employees overcome this cultural ‘psychological barrier’ and at the same time, preserved Starbucks core business values.”

Similarly, the Swedish company, IKEA needed to find a solution to the high turnover rate faced with its US employees. Since Americans have very strong feelings of individual over group, they were unimpressed with IKEA’s value of equality. Without job titles or clear job descriptions, the gap between IKEA and the typical cultural work expectations of US employees caused much dissatisfaction among them. Although not specifically called out in the study, considering the degree of cultural differences, it’s easy to predict plenty of conflict, as Sweden ranks low in hard charging, materialistic, assertive behavior, and it’s no surprise that the US culture in general ranks on the high side.

The qualities of assertiveness and materialism caused cultural conflict in a more laid-back business setting. For instance, in the Swedish work culture, men and women may perform the same tasks with less emphasis on gender. In most Scandinavian work cultures, it is not out of the ordinary for workers to leave their jobs promptly at 4:30PM. When a CEO in Denmark stands up to leave a negotiation with Americans at 4:15PM, the Americans might be utterly baffled. Denmark being a more balanced culture than the US, the country values quality of life, nurturance, and relationships over work. Maybe we could learn from the

The characteristic of “low aggressiveness” among employees seems to conflict with the American work value of getting ahead and high job mobility. Additionally, in the US, the value of individualism is highly appreciated and employees’ relationship to the organization is “independence.” Achievement and individual initiative will conflict with IKEA’s value statements: “Simplicity, humility, thrift and responsibility” and “Togetherness, Cost-Consciousness, Respect.”

For many Americans, this low assertiveness philosophy presents the exact opposite of their expectations of a large multi-national corporation. A quote from sums up how Americans can feel working for IKEA: “I feel that it can be difficult to work here unless you want to put yourself in any random position in the store. For example, if you spend five years as a kitchen designer, and that’s your specialty, to move up you may have to stock plants or sell bed sheets if a management position opens in one of those areas…The IKEA view of moving people ahead doesn’t seem to make sense to many Americans. Of course, in reality, there are American companies that randomly move people around, even after spending thousands of dollars training them.  But considering how Americans plan out career paths, IKEA’s beliefs in “equality” for all, apparently doesn’t align with their US employees’ understanding of advancing their careers.

Since the US has a very diverse population with large variability in individual values, IKEA’s solution was to sort through job applicants not for the best candidates, but for those candidates who best suited IKEA’s core values. Job previews were provided as well, which led to candidates self-selecting out. According to Carey, the result was low turnover rates and successful business operations in the US.

However, another quote from seems to contradict Carey’s report. “A bit like elementary school….no one leaves at the end of the night until EVERYONE leaves…. you often have to stay for several hours AFTER the store is closed. Clean and Restock…Clean and Restock…Clean and Restock….that is what you do when working at IKEA….regardless of your “title”.[10]

After reading those Glass Door reviews, and with the common knowledge that IKEA has many successful US stores, one has to wonder how they continue successful business operations in the US.

Culture shock also presents itself with the introduction of Indian software designers into the US IT workforce. According to the GLOBE presentation, India has high “In-group collectivism,” contrasting with the US values of individual initiative and achievement.[11] In an article published by Suman Bolar, “Culture Shock: Integrating Indian immigrants in the IT Workplace” Tech Republic June 20, 2000, a discussion of the cultural conflicts which arise when introducing people from a culture which values group decisions, saving face, and fear of humiliation into American IT society, mostly male dominated.  In a typical American IT world, members often work alone, are independent thinkers, may resist cooperation, and often have a “tech bro” attitude. (Inc. Magazine, 5 Reasons the Tech Industry Has Got to Stop Being so ‘Bro’,” October 2020).

This cultural adaptation would be a challenge for anyone breaking into the US IT world. Many of these people have to be trained in basic communication skills, like courtesy, manners, and even hygiene.  Since many IT people work into the night, their personal sleep, hygienic, and diet habits lend themselves to cultural stereotypes. After working with all kinds of engineers over the years, I can attest to the challenges a new, fresh face from an inherently polite culture would encounter.  The many Google memes about engineers portray the ongoing narrative..

As could be expected in this “Bro” culture, newly immigrated Indian employees have great difficulty in the simple act of interaction with fellow American employees. Unable to respond to a greeting due to language barriers or shyness, for instance, cause some American co-workers to regard a new Indian immigrant as “rude and standoffish” when their aloof response was a simple miscommunication. Additionally, Bolar notes, “Historically, Indians have lived with thousands and thousands of years of subservience. Obedience is a deeply ingrained trait. Many Indian professionals will carry out orders to perfection but will rarely take the bull by the horns and make an independent decision. As a people, we are not used to the aggressive ‘just do it’ attitude that today’s IT industry requires. Initiative is something that has to be [learned].”[12]

Bolar’s sources indicate that if an Indian employee is to be placed in any manner of authority, the extent of that authority has to be clearly delineated. The role must be explicitly defined, or the Indian worker will believe that the authority has not been given…[13] This scenario supports the GLOBE finding that Indians rank as moderate in valuing group cohesion more than individualism, while Americans rank low, clearly suggestive of conflict when placing an Indian in a position with decision-making power. In the United States’ more competitive culture, true group cohesiveness may only exist in our military, because American culture places higher value on individualism, not groups.

Additionally, the existence of underlines the need for broader cultural understanding in global business dealings. I recommend it for anyone preparing to do business in a different culture than their own. For a novice in international commerce, the website offers numerous solutions to preventing some obvious cultural mistakes. Each country listed is examined for a number of traits: Business Structure, Management Style, Meetings, Teams, Communication Styles, Women in Business, Dress, and Successful Entertaining. 

For instance, in Nigerian Business Structures, we learn that “All native Nigerian companies will display massive hierarchical tendencies.” For example, CEOs tend to be authoritarian in their management style. It’s not unusual for a Nigerian CEO to blame a junior employee for a decision gone wrong. An interesting post from Medium (“The Culture of Work in Nigeria”, by Oluwa nnjmnnTobi Banjoko, August 2018) tells the story: :

A CEO heard their competitor’s radio jingle (in his car?) on his way to work. When the CEO arrives to his office, he asks a junior employee about airing their company jingle on that specific station by the end of the week, the junior employee explains to the CEO the demographic of that radio station is totally opposite of their company’s youthful market (14–30). Furthermore, the cost to run the jingle on the station is five times the cost of the station that their youthful audience typically listens to, but the CEO insists. Ultimately, the junior person is overruled, and the radio ads are placed anyway. The ads do not generate the expected sales conversions. The CEO instead of admitting he didn’t quite get it right, blames the junior employee for not creating the right messaging, even though the CEO himself had approved the content that was aired.

While the hierarchical system works in Nigeria, a striking contrast on the same continent exists at its very southernmost tip. Because of its racially charged history, in South Africa, “Ethnic and racial divisions can make it difficult to build teams which cross these boundaries.”  Even though Apartheid has been illegal for over 30 years in South Africa, remnants of it still exist. You may be surprised to know, the population in South Africa still live separately (what people?), and neighborhoods are still segregated. The strong influence of generations of living in a racist society has left the scourge of intolerance in its wake. It’s ingrained into the culture. The social structure in South Africa is much the same as it has always been, consisting of many ethnicities and races, with the majority of people employed at large, global enterprises.

The South African typical work structure is quite 20th century, top down. So, if you need a decision made quickly, and you didn’t deal with the boss initially, don’t expect a quick answer. In my research, I learned that globalization trends have started influencing the hierarchical structure of South Africa flattening that hierarchy. However, even though Apartheid was banned over 30 years ago, people find it hard to break old habits. It seems South Africans are more comfortable when working within their own ethnic group..

Not surprisingly, most businesses are still divided along racial lines, and that includes pay inequity. Thanks to a new world of globalization, this outdated practice has been gradually phasing out. Another left-over Apartheid practice is overtly identifying race; it is not considered rude when people refer to themselves as Black or white. So, don’t take offense if you’re doing business in South Africa and you hear comments that sound racist to you.

Innovation and talent from South Africa have made a huge impact on the world. Elon Musk, and Charlize Theron are among many South African natives who have become household names everywhere. And let us not forget Trevor Noah. The bi-racial South African comedian and host of the Daily Show grew up in South Africa during the Apartheid era. He soared over the strict ethnic and racial divisions by pointing out how ludicrous they were. He turned to comedy to identify society’s unjust systems and practices. Thanks to leveraging his greatest talent, his sense of humor, he’s now a successful stand-up comedian and TV host, still making jokes about the foolishness of politics and current events. (Harvard Business Review, October 2018). Trevor’s book, Born a Crime: Stories From an African Childhood (2016), details the “crime” his parents committed by marrying. Their bi-racial union violated South Africa’s 1927 Immorality Act, now since overturned. Trevor’s story is not unusual in the lives of many South Africans. Thankfully, South Africa is making strides to overcome its terrible history.

More research on the World Business Culture website revealed something about the Finns that I never knew. The Finns seem to have a very lateral working culture. Supervisors do not check on employees, and it’s important that employees’ voices are included in all decision making. Agreement is critical to the Finns. Once a decision is agreed upon by the group, it’s adhered to. In Finnish culture, it’s unthinkable to violate any agreement. Flexible hours are also part of the Finnish work culture. People are free to take time off to take care of personal and family matters, and once the flex schedule is agreed upon, it is left to the employee to observe the agreement. Obviously, honesty is held in high esteem and is an intrinsic part of the culture. Finns also are not shy about speaking out. And unlike some other cultures, it’s not considered impolite to do so. Finns say what they mean, there’s no obfuscation in their conversations.

It’s easy to see that Finns value fairness and equality as well. Men and women are treated equally in all aspects of life. And contrary to many other cultures, both men and women are considered responsible for raising children.

Furthermore, Finland’s high level of autonomy and low level of bureaucracy add to the smoothness of communication among employees and top management. Time is not wasted waiting for approvals, and, in contrast to some old guard American organizations, ideas from all levels are seriously considered. As I read this research, it almost sounded too good to be true. But here it was in black and white. My thought was, “Countries around the world could benefit from adopting Finland’s values. The world would be a better place.”

Just these three stories alone could save a novice businessperson from wrong assumptions and gaffes in dealing in global cultures. I found the site fascinating and spent a bit too much time browsing the various countries’ cultural traditions and customs. However, I’m convinced, it was time well spent.

Carelessness and ignorance of cultural finer points can create insulting language and make the any company look foolish in the eyes of the global consumer. Inc. Magazine (October 2020) published an intriguing list of twenty egregious mistakes companies make because they didn’t bother to consider cultural details when presenting their brands globally. Some of the more interesting faux pas include: “Colgate launched toothpaste in France named ‘Cue’ without realizing that it’s also the name of a French pornographic magazine. Coors translated its slogan, ‘Turn It Loose,’ into Spanish, where it is a colloquial term for having diarrhea; Coca-Cola’s brand name, when first marketed in China, was sometimes translated as ‘Bite The Wax Tadpole.’”

The executives in charge of these projects didn’t check first to determine whether or not their catchy American tag lines translated well into the language of their targeted market. These errors are often career ending. A slight overlook led to a marketing disaster, costing their companies millions.

Whether we like it or not, the world of business is a flat landscape, but even so, we still know for sure the sun doesn’t rotate around the earth. Our instantaneous communication, web meetings, and improved transportation make the entire earth accessible to doing business globally. There are no more excuses to avoid learning the culture of our clients and suppliers. The concept of social harmony, prosperity for all, collectivism, loyalty and respect towards authority are among the values we need to learn, and their value to other cultures.

As you think of growing your career, consider an international assignment as part of your leadership development plan. Once you have the assignment, go out of your way to ensure you and your family members embrace the customs, traditions and work culture of the country that may be your home for a long time.

When my husband and I and one of our four children lived in Australia for a year, we were delighted to be introduced to so many different cultures, from Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and anywhere else you can imagine. Even as Americanized as Australia seemed to be at first blush, there were distinctly Australian customs. Stores closed at 3:00PM on Sundays. The work culture was far more flexible. They started later and left work early. On Fridays, everyone worked only a half a day. Lunch was at 1:00PM, not 11:30 or 12:00 as customary in the US. Socialized medicine is in place, so doctor’s visits were much cheaper. The cities had nearly zero homeless. Australians liked to party into the night, and the parties would end at 2:00AM or go all night long.

Studying global cultures and living and traveling to other countries has taught me to appreciate what’s different and new. I’ve learned to take off my shoes in a Japanese household, to figure out a way to drown out the noise of partying Australians, to draw out the personalities of shy Indian IT workers and accept gifts from Malaysian consultants. Culture shock is a real thing, and we need to be patient and tolerant of newcomers to this country. Just think how loud, rude and like workaholics we can appear.

We American employees and families had to acculturate ourselves because we were the foreigners. We went to Australia knowing almost nothing about the country, assuming it was pretty much like home. After a few weeks of living there, we embraced that fact that we were experiencing a whole new world. As a result of his oversea experience, my husband was promoted to Director of Global Satellites at his company. And after that amazing year abroad, it’s still surprising to our fellow Americans that we traveled so far for so long and returned with so much more knowledge and understanding of other cultures.

Prepare yourself for your overseas work. Embrace the culture and learn from it. Do your research. And that incredible, successful career move could be yours, too.

Globalization is forcing companies to do things in new ways – Bill Gates.

This essay is taken from Mary’s new book The Leader You Don’t Want to Be – On sale now at

Connect with Mary: mary@encoreexecutivecoaching.com – 401-742-1976


Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.