More than ever we live in a melting pot of cultures and customs.

Most businesses today not only work with employees, clients and colleagues from all around the globe, but they conduct business across oceans and multiple borders. Yet navigating communications among a global workforce from multiple cultures can be daunting at times. There are vast differences most of us aren’t even aware of!

If you’ve studied more than one language, you’ve probably come to understand the nuances that go into learning each one. Metaphors, figures of speech, how to tee things up in a sentence — they’re all different in different languages. What foods people eat and how they are prepared and served — how many cultural variations have you seen?

Extending from those obvious differences, how many of us have observed (or been part of) a cross-cultural communication misfire, where something that was expected in one person’s culture was totally out of place in another?

It’s bound to happen given the diversity of upbringings on this planet. We call these misfires because they often cause a breakdown in interaction.

A cross-cultural communication misfire can occur anytime two people are coming at a situation from different belief systems or customs. This can happen with your boss, your neighbor or even your spouse! But when you add the dynamic of different regional or cultural upbringings and expectations about what’s right and wrong (and why), the opportunity for cross-cultural misfires increases exponentially.

As my colleagues and I were recounting the misfires we’d observed in our international business development experiences, I noted there seemed to be categories:

  • Business Etiquette (Business cards or not? Bow or shake hands?)
  • Cultural Folklore (Is the unlucky number 13 as in the US or 4 as in China?)
  • Entertaining and Meal Situations (What are the customs? What food is appropriate?)
  • Dress or Fashion Guidelines (What level of formality is expected?)
  • Communication (How are decisions made? How should information be presented to a specific cultural audience? How should conflict be handled in a host country?)

Examples of Cross-Cultural Misfires

One of our seasoned Going Global consultants, has traveled the world and managed multicultural workforces with the diversity of the United Nations! Here are a few of the examples he recently served up:

  1. Using the slang term “guys” in any international conversation will leave the ladies scratching their heads about why they are not part of the conversation.
  2. Understanding brand power and prestige is paramount when dealing with luxury brands. Ladies, you’ll misfire if you wear Chanel earrings when you are meeting with the Dior group or have a Coach bag on your arm when meeting with the Louis Vuitton team.
  3. Don’t schedule a flight into Shanghai for a Chinese national on Korean airlines or Taiwanese airlines.
  4. Never book a China-based flight with the number 4 (symbolic of death) in the flight number. The flight that is always 100% booked is China airlines flight 888. (8 represents good luck!)
  5. Wearing Silicon Valley jeans and a sport coat to any meeting in the international marketplace will be seen as disrespectful. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and you’ll lose all credibility.


We’d love to hear your stories about cross-cultural misfires as well as cross-cultural solutions. If we like what you send, we might just ask if we can use it in our one of our upcoming Going Global seminars!