Top 10 Things to Be Mindful Of When Working Across Cultures

Industry Insights- Tips and advice from the global talent mobility community

By Dean Foster

In more than 30 years of intercultural consulting, I’ve often been asked, “What’s the one thing someone working across cultures needs to know about, no matter what culture they are in?” Good question! While the differences between cultures can be so complex that a top 10 list for just one culture can be a challenge, there are a few major cultural concerns that anyone who works globally needs to look out for.

10. Communication Style: Some cultures are direct and explicit, and put all the important information into the words they use; other cultures are indirect and implicit, and disguise important facts inside contextual code. This affects your ability to understand what is meant and how to respond positively.

9. Negotiation Style: Some cultures believe negotiations are win-lose, zero-sum games, while others see them as needing to be a Win-win, expanding-the-pie opportunities. This affects how you plan and execute your negotiation strategy.

8. Relationships: All cultures value trusting relation ships between people, but some require this before they can work with you; others go straight to the task, and if successful, then count on your relationship. This affects how you go about starting the project and where you put your energies: Do you go for the deal or the trust?

7. Socializing: These are the do’s and don’ts and the taboos you need to know about—from how to dine, drink, dress, greet, give and receive gifts, to etiquette rules between genders, generations, and ethnic groups, etc. While you’ll be forgiven for not knowing this at first, you are expected to “get it.”

6. Time Perception: In some cultures, time dictates what; when, and with whom we do things, In others, schedules and deadlines can bend. You will need to prioritize, plan, schedule, and implement differently depending on how time is viewed.

5. Decisions: Some cultures make decisions based on rules, processes, and systems; others base them on the immediate situation, despite the rules, processes, and systems. Are rules meant to be obeyed or broken, and under what circumstances? This affects the degree to which you can expect people to follow through on what was agreed to.

4. Authority: Some cultures invite you to a seat at the table based strictly on your expertise; in others, authority is based on age, gender, ethnicity, tribe, or relationship. This affects whether you get to speak with the decision-maker or a gatekeeper, and how you are expected to behave with authority.

3. Cultural Responsibility: Different cultures may think, behave, and perceive the world very differently than you do. You are not being paid to change that, but to understand it well enough to positively manage your own reaction to it.

2. Effort: Seek information, ask questions, show genuine curiosity and interest in what you might not  understand. Be the student when you need help understanding what’s going on in their culture, and be the teacher when they need help understanding what’s going on in yours.

1. Humility: Most important of all: No matter how much you may learn about another culture, it’s their culture, not yours. You are always a guest. Always be humble. Listen more than you speak. Respect what you can. Reflect on how your culture, and consequently your behavior, might appear to them, Be yourself—anything else is inauthentic— but With an understanding of how that identity appears to others.

Dean roster is principal at Dean Foster Global Cultures.

He can be reached at