As the world economy globalises, shipping gets cheaper, and intangible goods and money become ever easier to transfer across borders, SMEs increasingly can’t afford to operate only domestically. Competing means reaching out to international markets both for suppliers and for customers.


Unlike larger businesses, SMEs are likely to enter the world of international business without a lot of prior experience or knowledge about what they’re getting themselves into. Additionally, they don’t generally have the notoriety or the resources to help them ease the process of building new relationships. As a result, it’s simply a lot more difficult for SMEs to build those relationships. That creates both a challenge, and an opportunity to compete.

As an SME, then, it’s critical to know what kind of culture shock to expect, and to have a plan for how to deal with it when you decide to start building your business overseas. That’s true whether you’re visiting a foreign partner, or just trying to communicate effectively in a teleconference.

What to watch out for

Putting chopsticks into a bowl incorrectly, arriving to a meeting late, giving an odd gift, or accepting one when you were supposed to refuse, are issues that are commonly brought up in regard to culture shock. While those kinds of incidents make for great stories, they aren’t very likely to destroy a business relationship on the spot. These actions often don’t really miscommunicate, because it’s usually evident that the offender isn’t aware of the message they’re sending. Faux pas that can easily be interpreted as a deliberate power play, challenge, or insult are far more dangerous. These tend to be cultural habits that people assume are universal, but that don’t actually translate well.

Body language

We don’t tend to spend a lot of time learning about different rules for body language and closeness in other parts of the world. For example, smiling and eye contact that one person might consider to be normal friendly and polite behaviour could easily be interpreted as a sexual advance by another. Touching someone, even on the hand or arm, could be considered extremely inappropriate in some places, while in others simply making no physical contact could be seen as standoffish.

Adherence to hierarchy

In the Western business world, business hierarchies have been gradually levelling for decades. Employees communicate fairly freely with other employees in and outside their department, they call managers and leaders by their first names, and generally feel more comfortable accessing and exchanging ideas with people higher up on the totem pole than them.

This can become a problem when working with partners who maintain stricter order in their own organisation. For example, if you were to seek some expert feedback from an employee in a partner organisation, it might not be appropriate to communicate with them directly (instead of their manager), even if you’re working with that employee in another capacity. Conversely, they might consider it disrespectful if you were to refer them to a lower level employee instead of handling the issue yourself when roles are reversed.

What “business relationship” means

As extreme examples, it’s well known that building a business relationship goes hand in hand with building a social relationship in Mexico, and that pleasantries are considered mostly a waste of time when working with Germans. Every culture has a slightly different approach to what a business relationship really is, and to what extent business should overlap with personal. Even small missteps here can lead to serious miscommunication, and make it very difficult to come to an arrangement.

Managing culture shock

While the best solution is, of course, exhaustive familiarity of the culture of your partners, that isn’t always an option in the short term. In many cases, we only work with the information we can find on the Internet, and that is rarely complete or appropriate for every demographic and industry we might interact with. To succeed despite this, it’s important to be ready for unexpected issues, and to have a plan for how to approach any awkwardness and miscommunication.

Communicate straightforwardly

People aren’t out to get offended, and a bit of preventive honesty can go a long way. If you can make your business’ situation, goals, motivations, and intentions toward your new business partner clear up front, they’ll have the context they need to interpret your actions. Similarly, eliciting this information from them explicitly can eliminate a lot of guesswork later on.

Be tolerant

Culture shock goes two ways. It’s important to understand that behaviour that you might consider unprofessional or rude could be completely normal for your business partner. There’s no reason to be offended, or to make judgments in regard to things that won’t get in the way of the relationship’s business success.

Show interest

If you’re visiting a new place, and the business you’re working with has assigned you someone to show you around or help you, it might be an appropriate time to get some insider knowledge. Showing interest in new cultures is a great way to gain the cultural familiarity you’re missing while also signalling your current lack of that familiarity.

Understanding that culture shock can be a serious issue when doing business internationally is, in itself, already an important step. If you additionally take the time to educate yourself, be tolerant, and learn to communicate effectively while operating in an unfamiliar context, you’ll gain a significant edge on many small business competitors that are dipping their toes into international markets for the first time.