How cultural faux pas can affect your bottom line

Cultural faux pas when traveling

Do you have staff traveling for work? Is your sales force criss-crossing different continents? You might want to consider discussing business travel etiquette.

Research released from reveals that a lack of understanding when it comes to cultural norms is impacting companies’ reputations worldwide, with 62% of business travelers believing that etiquette errors affect companies’ bottom lines.

“Business travelers today need to become cultural chameleons in a sense,” says Ripsy Bandourian, Director of Product Development, for Business. “The simplest of gestures and behaviours that are perfectly acceptable in one country or city can cause offence in another, which ultimately can make or break a deal.” surveyed over 4,500 business travelers across eight countries and found that 32% of global business travelers admit to having committed a cultural faux pas while on the road, with 49% worried they will unknowingly offend a client or business associate. Almost half (45%) of business travelers, meanwhile, have witnessed a colleague or business associate from other countries make a cultural slip-up.

Here’s what respondents felt were the biggest etiquette blunders.

Being on a mobile device during a meeting 46%
Not greeting people appropriately 43%
Inappropriate attire 36%
Speaking loudly 32%
Not responding to emails within 24 hours 19%

The good news is that most business travelers are aware of the importance of correct etiquette, with 83% saying it’s important to be aware of cultural norms when travelling to a different country on business.  Three out of four business travelers (73%) also claim to research where they are going to better understand a country’s business etiquette. That does not, however, seem to be enough to stop them from committing a cultural faux pas.

Respondents from China admitted to committing the most cultural faux pas when traveling for business. They were followed closely by Italian business travelers.

China 67%
Italy 65%
USA 58%
Germany 56%
Spain 52%

Interestingly, survey respondents from Japan were the least concerned with breaking any cultural etiquette rules while traveling for business, with only 30% claiming it was something they were concerned about. 

So what were respondents most worried about?

Dining and small talk

One in four respondents were concerned about eating with people they don’t know very well, or going to restaurants that may not be able to adjust to their dietary requirements. One in three worry about being served too much alcohol (30%), and a similar proportion (32%) are concerned about making small talk with associates they don’t know very well.

Mobile devices

Almost half (46%) of respondents felt that being on your mobile device during a meeting is the most offensive. British (57%) and American  (55%) business travelers were most likely to say that being on a mobile phone is a complete no-no, while Japanese business travelers were less bothered by this error (30%).


Two fifths (43%) of global business travelers felt that not greeting a business associate properly was one of the biggest cultural faux pas. Compared to those from other countries, Japanese business travelers felt the strongest about improper greetings, with three out of five (61%) seeing this as the highest form of rudeness. Half (50%) of Chinese respondents thought that speaking loudly was the biggest cultural slip-up in their country.


So, what do you do if you have unknowingly (or knowingly) offended a foreign business associate? It might sound strange to Canadians, but apologizing straight away is not something everyone agrees with. Only 37% of Italian business travelers, for example, felt that apologizing on the spot was the right approach (26% say they would instead try to make a joke of it to diffuse the situation). On the other side of the spectrum, 69% of Japanese business travelers suggest saying sorry right away.

What’s the main takeaway from all this? There’s more to business travel than simply booking flights and accommodations. If your employees are hitting the road, ask about any concerns they might have. Encourage them to do their research, and if necessary, look into arranging for guides and interpreters to cut down on any avoidable slip ups.

See also:
Want a better culture? Set compensation strategy accordingly
Should your office have a gambling policy?


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