How to be culturally aware when working abroad

When travelling abroad for work and other business, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of being culturally aware during your visit.

From learning the local language, to educating yourself on the country’s beliefs and traditions, it’s vital that you’re able to successfully communicate with others without conveying the wrong meaning, and potentially causing offense. This is something that can very dangerous when you’re away from home, especially with a total of 4,770 Britons experiencing arrest or detention abroad in 2015 (source).

According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs, more than 3,500 US citizens were also arrested overseas in 2010, while a recent survey found that less than half of major organisations provide personal travel security training to their employees (source).

Although many individuals get arrested abroad for matters unrelated to business etiquette, a number of these cases could have been avoided by being culturally aware.

Declan Mulkeen, Sales and Marketing Director of Communicaid, says: “An example of this is the case of Michael McFeat, who worked for the Canadian mining company, Centerra Gold. He was detained by police last year after he posted a comment on Facebook that reportedly offended staff at the mine and led to a temporary strike that landed this Scottish expat in jail.”

As well as being able to effectively communicate with others, being culturally aware will also help you to ensure your safety, fit in easier and properly conduct business. For example, it’s useful to know that in Japan, business deals are generally made over more meetings than they would be in the UK.

Declan Mulkeen adds: “Cultural faux pas can also put some people in a position of danger by missing the importance of a significant date. This can be a holiday, the anniversary of a tragedy, or something of religious significance.”

“Examples of difficulties encountered by employees who are unaware of culturally significant events include ignoring or dismissing the significance of patriotic holidays, disrespecting mourning periods for the dead/martyrs/military heroes, or through inappropriate behaviour, dress codes, or offensive comments about a faith-based practice.”

With that in mind, here are the main things you should be culturally aware of when travelling abroad.


Research the laws and recent geo-political topics

Respecting and being aware of a country’s laws is the most important thing when it comes to ensuring your safety when working abroad. In 2013, the FCO (Foreign & Commonweath Office) said that almost 5,000 of the travellers it assisted in the previous year could have avoided arrest if they had researched local laws before travelling (source).

If you don’t know where to start, foreign travel advice can be found on the GOV.UK website.

As they vary wildly from country to country, one issue to be aware of are the laws concerning alcohol consumption. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is illegal to drink alcohol, and you’re advised not to arrive in the country while under its influence. However, although it’s legal for non-Muslims to drink alcohol in Dubai, being intoxicated in public can lead to a fine or 6-month jail sentence.

Countries also have very different laws regarding smoking, driving and physical contact with members of the opposite sex, so research these before you travel. Again, advice on this can be found at GOV.UK.

On a similar note, you should also be well-informed of geo-political topics and the best way to address them without causing offense. Some to be aware of are the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and debates regarding the sovereignty of Tibet.

HSBC also has some useful information for expats in different countries.


Learn the basics of that country’s language

Despite English being spoken in over 50 countries around the world, just assuming that everyone you meet will be happy to communicate with you in this way will convey arrogance, and it could potentially cause offense to the locals you meet.

Not only that, but misunderstandings can also be made from not understanding the language, and this can be very dangerous when it concerns laws and traditions.

Even if you only learn the basics of the language (such as greetings and common phrases), attempting to speak it will show respect. As a result, most locals will be happier to help you and will converse with you in a language you understand.

Although you won’t become fluent in a new language within just a few weeks of learning, you should be able to teach yourself the basics at home. Consider investing in online language learning software, such as Rosetta Stone or Babbel.

Short on time? Download the Google Translate app to instantly translate text by pointing your phone’s camera at it. This is especially useful for quickly understanding signs, menus, and documents.

Until the pilot for an earpiece language translator becomes a reality, this is a good option to consider.


Be aware of traditions and the meanings behind them

Traditions are highly valuable to many countries as they help its people to connect and establish more of a community. Therefore, they should be regarded with the utmost respect.

Before travelling to a country, you should research their traditions, learn the meanings behind them, and make yourself aware of the right ways to respect and acknowledge them. Taking part in cultural traditions is not only polite and respectful, but it will also help you to fit in and ensure your safety.

When it comes to national figures (such as Kim Jong Un), make sure you’re respectful when discussing them. Additionally, if name honorifics are commonly used (as is the case in Japan), you can cause great offense if you don’t use them correctly.

For the correct way to use Japanese name-honorific enders, including san, sama, and chun, check out this quick guide from TakeLessons.

When it comes to customs, one thing to be aware of are that business is conducted differently around the world. For example, negotiations will take place over several meetings in Japan. It is also common for business to be done over drinks in China, though this wouldn’t be acceptable in a number of other countries.

Emma Casburn founded her own travel agency, Infinite Travel, after spending 8 years teaching English around the world. She says of her experiences: “I implore anyone who goes to work abroad to research local customs before departure. For example, remembering to receive a document with two hands as a sign of respect in China is very important, and if I hadn’t known this I could’ve been seen as being rude to my boss.”

“When out to dinner with colleagues in South Korea, I also learnt that I should not pour my own drink, and when you say “cheers”, your glass should be lower than your superiors when they clink. It can be very subtle things that you don’t know you’re doing wrong which could aggravate a colleague. Making those small changes and adapting to the local customs to please your colleagues will go a long way to help your employment overseas go smoothly.”

Polina Kärkelä, the Customer Service Manager for AAC Global, adds: “Russia has changed a lot in the past couple of decades: for example, the old stereotype of vodka served for breakfast has lost its grounding in reality. You can even refuse alcohol later in the day without causing the slightest offence to your host.”

“However, the well-know modern business hubs of Moscow and St. Petersburg are not all of Russia. Ventures outside of the metropolises will require extensive background research and will still lead to surprises that you had not prepared for.”

In aspects of socialising, another thing to consider is the fact that in Spain, businesses usually shut for a few hours in the afternoon for the Siesta. As a result, locals tend to eat and socialise later in the day. Similarly, many Malaysians eat out later in the day, so there are many 24-hour food premises.


Be wary of your gestures and manners

Another thing to be aware of when traveling abroad are common gestures and manners. For example, although something as simple as making the “OK” sign with your hand is completely normal in the UK, this same gesture would cause offense in Brazil as it has a vulgar meaning.

Other gestures that convey different meanings from country to country include giving the thumbs up sign, as well as nodding and shaking your head.

Similarly, while finishing the food on your plate is commonly done in the UK, in China this would cause great offence to your host by implying you’re still hungry and haven’t been provided with enough food to eat. However, in Japan it’s considered rude to leave food on your plate.

Dress codes (and what is considered acceptable dress) also varies wildly from country to country. As an example, men are not allowed to wear shorts when out in public in Saudi Arabia, while women are required to wear an abaya over their clothes. In Thailand, women should cover their cleavage, though skirts and shorts are generally acceptable.

Suzanne Robinson, a Travel Consultant at Travel says: “Being culturally aware when travelling is just about being prepared and doing some research on your chosen destination. Having knowledge of local customs before you arrive will save you the embarrassment of upsetting your host country and make for a much more enjoyable trip.”

“Some countries are more used to dealing with tourists and corporate clients from other parts of the world, and often when staying in a hotel, there can be a more relaxed approach to local customs.”

“Dressing appropriately is one of my clients’ main queries, and with a little research this can be easily planned for. Some destinations have local standards of dress including the covering of shoulders, legs, and heads. These rules do often apply to women instead of men, and whilst we may not be used to these restrictions on what women wear, ensuring they are adhered to can avoid unwanted attention or upset.”

“Gestures that we may be used to can often have completely different meanings in other parts of the world. For example, beckoning someone by crooking your finger at them can be an insult in Asia and The Middle East. This all may appear to be a mind field of dos and don’ts, but it should not put you off travelling and seeing different cultures. There are some amazing places to visit.”

Rana Sinha, Consultant and Cultural Trainer at AAC Global, adds: “Words and phrases reflect different thought patterns in different socio-cultural contexts. For example, “yes” in India almost always means only “I have heard you.” It does not signal a positive commitment unless explicit details are added to demonstrate that. Indians, guided by their own thought patterns, may also not notice that you’re making the wrong assumptions about their positive commitment.”

“If you want more clarity, engage them in a dialogue. Reflecting on your own assumptions, and ways of thinking and acting makes you more sensitive to the cultural context, and that’s the key to success when doing business in India.”

As well as causing offense, certain gestures and actions can get you in serious trouble with the law, so you should make sure you’re fully aware of these before traveling.


In summary, every country’s laws and customs are unique to themselves, and what is considered as being acceptable in one country may cause serious offense in another. To ensure your safety, make sure you’re fully aware of these before visiting.