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Navigating Business Culture: Thoughts From A Serial Expat

Navigating Business Culture: Thoughts from a Serial Expat

The weekend comes and it’s time for a movie night with friends! If you hang out in someone’s living room and stream something, you’ll act differently than if you were in a theater. You’ll probably make comments at a regular volume, or ask to pause the movie while you go to the bathroom. Your phone will stay on, and maybe you’ll live-tweet your opinions as you’re watching. “First time ever seeing Star Wars. How is this popular? Luke Skywalker = whiny pretty-boy. #TeamVader #turntothedarkside #rebelscum #hansoloiscoolthough.”

None of this would be acceptable if you went to a movie theater. The goal is the same — to enjoy a movie and good company — but  you have to act differently. If you don’t, things will not go well for you. Speaking above a whisper, asking for the movie to be paused, or using your phone the entire time would upset people. You might be reprimanded or asked to leave. 

Watching a movie in different venues is similar to doing business in different cultures. The basic goals are the same, but the expected behaviors and means of attaining those goals can  vary wildly. Failing to understand diverse cultural norms can cause offense, limit success, and even get you asked to leave the “theater”.

Examples of Cultural Differences

Bill Schafer is Vice President of North America Business to Business Sales at Michelin. He is also a seasoned expat. He has  spent a total of eleven years working in Mexico, France, and the United Kingdom, and he has shared some cultural differences he had to navigate in each place.


“In Mexico,” he says, “relationships are as important as professional capability.  To succeed in business, personal relationships and trust are essential.” It was common for Bill to join customers for late dinners that lasted for hours. It was understood that for the first hour or so, business would not be discussed. That time was only for personal matters such as catching up on families. It was also normal to attend customers’ personal events, such as children’s baptisms. Americans appreciate relationships, but also like to “get to the point” quickly. They also prefer to limit mixing the personal and professional.


French business culture values the process of arriving at an outcome as much as the outcome itself. It is more analytical and rational than in the United States, where  there is a tendency to push for fast results. The American rationale is that adjustments can be made, if necessary, after actions are taken. This approach will not earn the confidence of French colleagues, who often think that Americans act before they think.

United Kingdom

Hierarchy matters in every culture, but Americans like to maintain an appearance of equality. In the United Kingdom however, status is more overt. Title, office location, and car type are all important symbols of one’s stands in the business sphere. Bill was surprised that he could not have the company car he wanted because it was “beneath” his position. Showing that he respected the relative status of each person with whom he dealt was vital to success there. 

What Can You Do?

In addition to working abroad, Bill has managed many expats. He has been able to observe the attitudes that can make or break an international assignment, and he leaves us with the following advice:

 “It is important for expat employees, especially those in management, to have a mindset that your department is likely not thrilled that you are there. Expats are normally sent for career development, to be tested, or to bring expertise that does not exist in the host country. All of these can feel disruptive to an organization, so it’s important to adopt an attitude of humility.

Take  time to listen to what has been done in the past and why. Be sure you understand what your team thinks and why they think it. Do this before making judgements and defining actions, as your team will need to buy in to any proposed changes. If they feel that they were not part of the process, they will kick back. You should never enter with an attitude that what has been done in the past is garbage,  and that a “new sheriff is in town”.

In our Intercultural Training courses, we discuss the challenges of navigating cultural differences. It’s not easy, because doing so demands more than just mimicking observable behaviors. It also requires understanding the unseen, and often counterintuitive, values which drive behavior.

So enjoy your next movie night! Just know that you will get the most out of it if you remain aware of exactly where you’re watching.