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Intercultural competence begins with respect

These tips will help you master the challenges of intercultural communication.

Why you should read this article

Importers and exporters need to develop intercultural skills if they are to establish successful long-term collaborations with partners abroad.

The Americans are the champions of small talk. The Japanese and the Chinese place great importance on personal contact and they normally want to spend as much time as possible with their business partners. For the Swiss, etiquette demands almost excessive levels of courtesy when dealing with business partners.

Different countries, different customs: Smart companies take cultural differences into account when they expand abroad.

“Gestures and body language convey the lion’s share of the message. The words spoken come last in terms of importance.”

Rainer Beekes
Managing Partner at Global Cultures – Akademie für interkulturelles Management Beekes & Beekes, GbR

A little restraint in communication and some reflection on the needs of your partner can go a long way. Beekes advises allocating more time for dialogue than is usually done at home. In foreign countries, meetings are often less about arriving at decisions quickly or closing the deal than they are about exchanging ideas and developing a sense of cooperation.

“This should not be regarded as a complete waste of time. See it as a great opportunity to remove the barriers to market entry,” explains Beekes.

English is a requirement – or a qualified interpreter

Ideally, business is done in the local language. “English is now a must in international business. French is not always expected. It’s definitely not a disadvantage if the company also has something to offer in this regard,” says Beekes.

An interpreter may be called for in business relationships with Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. “But check their credentials,” warns Beekes. The company should always ask for references. The interpreter should be familiar with the technical terms of the industry and mutual trust always forms the basis of a successful collaboration. After all, an unfortunate turn of phrase in the translation can bring a business relationship to a premature end.


Don’t put your foot in it

Do some research on etiquette in the respective country before stepping onto the international stage.

Preparing for the special characteristics of your new target markets:

Independent research: There are plenty of websites and books about the codes of behavior abroad, be that within the EU, in Asia, or Africa.

Ask experienced colleagues: A friend of a friend has two nationalities and his family lives in the other country? That’s the ideal way of getting started, with someone qualified to give advice based on their own experience.

Take part in training seminars: Even those who think they know what they’re doing abroad can still learn something new. Intercultural training seminars and experienced advisers teach very specific knowledge.

Intercultural Competence


Different countries, different business rules. Contact with foreign cultures can occasionally throw up some surprises. For good business relations, you should know how to deal with intercultural blunders.

Show understanding for other cultures

His tip: “Show understanding for other cultures!” The expert warns against the German custom of feeling superior to others.

Clever businesspeople convey a feeling of openness and sincerity to their business partners. They listen and they pay attention to gestures. “Gestures and body language convey the lion’s share of the message. The words spoken come last in terms of importance,” explains Beekes. This means that the message doesn’t lie in the statement itself but in the way you present yourself.

Consequently, it is advisable to adjust to the manners and customs of the other country. If you’re unsure, ask and read up about their customs in advance.

Be careful with gifts

Beekes recalls a meeting with a group of Taiwanese businessmen a few years ago. A German businessman wanted to impress his clients so he brought some fashionable watches to the meeting to give as a small gift.

He got an unexpected reaction. The potential clients pulled out their wallets to pay for the timepieces. “In their culture, getting a watch as a present means only one thing: Your time is running out,” says Beekes.


Six tips for strategic communication

In business meetings abroad, the (potential) business partner’s main concern is often to get a feel for their German counterpart, not closing a deal as quickly as possible.

Conducting yourself abroad:

  • Take a step back: First of all, wait. Don’t go like a bull at a gate. That’s the golden rule of customer acquisition abroad.
  • State your intentions: Most business partners share your goal of striking a deal that will benefit both sides. Formulating your intentions openly and explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing will earn you extra Brownie points.
  • Be flexible: Clever businesspeople do not act the way they do at home. They consciously adjust to their partner’s culture – without going overboard.
  • Establish a personal relationship: It’s OK to mix business and more personal matters when doing business abroad. It’s important to establish a personal relationship before entering those tough negotiations.
  • Take a strategic approach: You should draw up a plan outlining how you intend to carry out the negotiations. After all, that is exactly what your foreign partner will be doing.
  • Budget for a discount: Not all business partners will settle for a 3% early payment discount. Bargaining is part of business in some countries. So an appropriate discount should be allowed for in the contract calculation. Allowing the client to negotiate a big discount gives them a sense of achievement.

The issue of compliance

Company bosses should be cautious when giving gifts – the key word here is “compliance.” The rules are the same at home and abroad. Small presents preserve the friendship, while expensive gifts are a no-no.

Gifts go down very well in Russia, for example – chocolates, alcoholic drinks, and flowers are always acceptable. But the Russians occasionally like to give bottles of Cognac worth $200. Declining is perhaps the best solution but that might offend the giver. “You should communicate clearly why you can’t accept it. Don’t just decline it. If your partner knows the reason why, they’ll be able to accept the decision,” advises Beekes.

Every company should have clear rules on how staff should deal with gifts so that they’re ready for situations like this.

Breaking the ice with a business lunch

The same is true when it comes to appropriate costs for business lunches – in line with what’s customary in the area in which you’re operating. “Business lunches are still the best way to get to know your partner,” says Beekes. It’s important to be punctual. Non-drinkers should have a credible response prepared in case a Russian business partner offers vodka; medical reasons, for example. And last but not least: Women never pay the check. Better that a male colleague handles it discreetly

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