Cross Cultural Awareness –
What do I wear and what should I say?
Stepping safely through the minefield of cross-cultural differences when working in this global economy has many of us lacking from time to time.
What is appropriate in Europe, Asia-Pacific or the Middle East?
How should we act, what should we wear?
In our own culture correct etiquette needs to be followed to project the right image with enough respect to generate acceptance.
How many of us even know the right things to do at the right time in our own culture? Here are few suggestions as a starting that may help when doing business abroad.
Your visual image is the first thing that is noticed no matter where you are in the world.
Attire reflects the general attitudes of the society, and may demonstrate religious or moral beliefs as well (and this is even before going into the differences between the generations in each society.)
In Australia it may be acceptable to wear shorts and casual shoes often even in business meetings (in certain working environments), and certainly while traveling.
However, most Asians often find it extremely offensive to sit on an airplane next to someone showing his hairy legs, and most certainly would not wish to do business with such a person.
When in fashion, the most chic Parisian style may call for the shortest mini-skirt imaginable that will be admired by most in that environment however, to wear even a knee length skirt, or sleeveless blouse in a Middle Eastern country will gain a woman no respect whatsoever.
While some cultures have relaxed their expectations of what is considered respectable business attire, it is always safer to dress conservatively until you fully understand what is acceptable and what is not.
Even formal or official national dress may not always be appropriate.
Acceptable attire for formal occasions in the West normally consists of a black suit, white shirt and tie or ‘black tie.’ In the Philippines an embroidered Barong, pineapple-fiber, shirt is acceptable no matter how formal the occasion.
In Indonesia a long-sleeved, colourful batik shirt and serves the same purpose.
George Bush wearing a Barong shirt in the Philippines
As most Asian businessmen take the time and trouble to learn what is appropriate and what is not in business situations it is unlikely that a diplomat from either of these countries would wear batik or barong to a black tie dinner in London.
Over in Fiji, the men wear tailored skirts as business suits, and many Papuans wear nothing but Koteka (penis sheaths).
What do you think a conservative Japanese businessman in his suit might think of such men were they to appear at a meeting in Japan in their national dress?
While researching for this article I found a question on Yahoo answers that I found amusing. The question was, “I am from PNG. Can I wear my Koteka when visiting the USA?”
To which the reply was, “I wouldn’t recommend it. People get mugged for their Kotekas all the time.”
What about in Europe?
As a very general guide, professionals in the United Kingdom take great pride in looking polished and well groomed; men are expected to wear black or navy blue business suits, and women can wear business suits, dresses.
In France, It is best for men and women to avoid especially flashy accessories when dressing for the office; however, French professionals do tend to be particularly stylish when dressing, so patterned clothing and tailored suits are acceptable.
In Scandinavian countries, it is best for men and women to wear dark-colored business suits, although medium-hued suits in colors such as gray are also acceptable.
Women are permitted to wear pants in the workplace, and accessories should be conservative. Italian professionals tend to be very stylish; it is acceptable for a man to wear brightly colored shirts with dark business suits, and women can be more creative with accessories.
Women also are expected to wear high heels to the office.
It’s all about awareness and respect.
Do your research before you pack for your next overseas business trip so you can focus on the task at hand rather than worry if you have made a great faux pas in the way you present yourself.
For help with how to DRESS FOR SUCCESS IN BUSINESS in a typical corporate environment, this guide will help:
How to Address an International Business Associate
While researching for this topic I found some valuable information from a paper presented at the CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF ARBITRATORS, MALAYSIA BRANCH INTERNATIONAL
ARBITRATION CONFERENCE, 2006.
This was a guide for attendees and this synopsis will be a helpful guide to you too.
Australians and to a lesser extent Americans tend to address everyone on a first name basis upon first meeting them, or even on the telephone or in emails where they have not yet met.
In many other cultures, including most European ones, this may be considered extremely bad form – as such familiarity does not afford any semblance of respect.
It could be fatal if an Australian businessperson were to commence talks referring to Asian and European parties by their first names at the outset.
In time, if there is an amicable and cooperative atmosphere and a sense of familiarity created all around one may be invited to be on first name terms.
To start the ball rolling by calling German Count Heinrich von Richter-Witt “Hans” or Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. M Mohammad Azali bin Dato’ H. Samsuddin “Sam” could easily be taken as insulting and destroy the opportunity to gain the trust and cooperation so necessary for success.
Italians use the third person, and the French the second person plural, when addressing superiors or anyone they do not know well, and improper use of the second person singular can be taken as an insult when first meeting someone.
There are at least three distinct levels of both Javanese and Balinese languages, the use of which depends upon the relative social status of the person speaking and the person being addressed.
In some cultures, such as American or Philippine, former ambassadors, or presidents, are referred to by such titles long after their term of office has expired, sometimes for the remainder of their lives.
In others, to continue to use such term may be considered an insult to their successors or a sign of ignorance of the current situation.
In some European and Asian cultures, a long chain of titles before one’s name is a show of respect. In other cultures such use is considered an affectation.
Such titles may have different significance in different countries. For example “Esq.” in the UK denotes landed gentry. In the United States it refers to anyone in legal practice, to the great bemusement of the British.
This fascinating topic requires additional research for full understanding and, as you can see, can be quite a minefield of information and misinformation!
What I find helps the most are our own personal experiences – what are yours?