The importance of culture in business travel

When you operate within a global travel industry, as Clarendon Serviced Apartments does, you welcome business travellers from around the globe. For over 26 years we’ve had guests from South America, Europe, Asia and North America stay with us. One of the most important things we’ve learnt is that travellers from different countries don’t necessarily communicate in the same way as UK travellers. This isn’t just about language, obviously, it’s about what they want, what they expect and how you can deliver it. So what do you need to be aware of to understand the cultural expectations of different travellers?


1. Be aware of non-personal communication

Think about how, as a UK traveller, you communicate your confidence and assertiveness as a business traveller. It’s probably through your handshake. When we shake hands, often proffering a business card and making eye contact we’re communicating a clear message; that is, we’re pleased to meet and do business with you, we’re the confident person you want to do business with. This may work in many Western countries but it isn’t universally acknowledged. In Asian and Pacific cultures, for example, handshakes tend to be gentler and eye contact is less direct. Business cards are generally shared with two hands rather than one and it is expected that relationships will develop over time before business can be conducted.


2. Slow down you verbal communication and write where you need to

This might seem like teaching a grandma to suck eggs but it’s vital to get your message across clearly and effectively. Whether you’re speaking in English or using a foreign tongue you need to ensure you’re getting across what you need to, with no missteps or confusion. It can be frustrating for a business traveller when they don’t understand what they’re being offered or are promised something that can’t be delivered. Where language is a barrier send a follow up email or put an agreement in writing. Yes, this seems basic but you’d be amazed at how many deals go awry because an agreement wasn’t fully understood on either side.


3. Check meanings and avoid negative questions

Cross cultural communication is a potential minefield. Many misunderstandings have been caused by using negative questions and answers. For example in English we say ‘yes’ when we mean affirmative and use a downward nod of the head. We say ‘no’ for negative and accompany with a shake of the head side to side. In other cultures the exact opposite can be the case, with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ relating to whether the questioner is right or wrong. A downward nod can signal a negative response and a shake a positive. Double negatives can also be confusing when English isn’t a first language; ‘are you not coming?’ for example can confuse a speaker about whether they should answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’


4. Be careful with humour

Everyone likes to be funny and in our Western culture usually, (usually!) a joke can help break the ice and you’ll still be seen as professional – depending on the joke, obviously. Yet in many different cultures to be seen as professional and to be taken seriously as a potential collaborator there is a set protocol that needs to be adhered to. British sarcasm pretty much anywhere outside the UK isn’t fully understood; even in the US, our nearest linguistic neighbour, sarcasm can often be met with a blank expression. Maintaining etiquette and avoiding any statements that may be misconstrued is probably the safest option. Being supportive to those with weaker English who may not be ready for a full tour of the British sense of humour isn’t only polite it’s professional.


Hopefully the days are gone when people assume that everyone doing business is well versed in the English language and British culture. The business world is expanding and when we look to Asia in particular we increasingly need to be mindful that what we take for granted as ways of doing business might not be mimicked elsewhere.

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