We now live in a fully global society where it is imperative to have an awareness of cultural differences as they relate to networking etiquette.  We often notice differences within our own states.  Certainly between regions of the nation; but what about businesses that are networking with businesses in other parts of the world?  We actually cross cultures with every person we meet.

In business, when we concentrate on similarities with each other, the differences aren’t that important.  Problems arise when the differences appear to be all there are.  When entrepreneurs focus on the perceived differences between each other in business, these differences can become stumbling blocks to developing a strong relationship, which is, after all, the ultimate goal of networking.  When you factor in differences in communication and behavioral styles it exacerbates the perceived differences.

It becomes very easy for a “them” vs. “us” situation to develop.  People then focus on the problems as evidence that the differences do actually exist and make it more difficult to work together.  This dynamic can greatly multiply the cultural differences that naturally do occur, whether you are talking about doing business with East coast firm doing business with a West coast supplier or a Western business negotiating with an Eastern firm.

It is important to find things that bring us together - things that are similar for us all.  For example, we all speak the language of referrals and we all want to do business based on trust.  This transcends many cultural differences. 

I have mentioned before that some resist structured referral marketing programs, claiming that it’s “too American” to which I have replied, “The law of reciprocity” is about the least ‘American’ concept around!  We aren’t teaching our business graduates to focus on what they can give as they support each other in developing businesses.  On the contrary, they are more or less being taught to win as much as you can…dog eat dog…you get the idea.”  I submit that as we move into a more global arena of networking, the similarities between us will become more and more evident as we teach business owners to speak the language of referrals.

That said – we should be aware and prepared for some of these particular cultural differences that can affect the way we network with other cultures.  They are sometimes as simple as the way we hand out a business card, to as complex as the study of proxemics and the usage of specific idioms.

Networking in today’s market takes finesse and knowledge of the culture in which you are networking.  I am currently working on a new book with co-author Sam Schwartz on the subject of networking etiquette.  There are a lot of entrepreneurs who study networking, but I want to take a look at cultural nuances to be aware of.

Here are three areas where cultural differences mandate a closer look at networking etiquette:

Business Card Etiquette

Exchanging business cards is an essential part of most cultures.  In most Asian countries, after a person has introduced him or herself and bowed, the business card ceremony begins.  In Japan, this is called meishi. The card is presented to the other person with the front side facing upwards toward the recipient.  Offering the card with both hands holding the top corners of the card demonstrates respect to the other person.

The business card is much more in the Asian culture than it is to us here in America.  It is truly an extension of the individual and is treated with respect.  Things like tucking it into a pocket after receiving it, writing on it, bending or folding it in any way, or even looking at it again after you have first accepted it and looked at it are not considered polite and can insult your fellow Asian networker.

Consideration of “personal space”

When networking and meeting others with whom you wish to pursue a word-of-mouth marketing paradigm, it’s very important to respect the cultural boundaries relating to personal space. 

The science of proxemics (the study of our use of space) really is fascinating.  For example, a Yale dissertation written by William Ickinger in the 1980’s revealed that female pairs stand closer to one another than female/male pairs who stand closer to one another than male/male pairs.  Although this separation was small (a difference of less than 3 inches) the predicted pattern listed above was observed consistently during the study.

It’s crucial to understand the subtle, unspoken dynamics of personal space.  Someone might not even be able to put a finger on what it is that sours the business relationship, when in reality, it’s nothing more than discomfort from having his or her “bubble” encroached upon.  Some cultural dynamics are fine with close personal interaction, while others demand a bigger bubble.  This is not a point to underestimate. 

There are three basic separations to consider when taking proxemics into account.  For Americans, they typically are:   public space (ranges from 12 to 25), social space (ranges from 4 to 10 feet), personal space (ranges from 2 to 4 feet), and intimate space (ranges out to one foot).

In Saudi Arabia their social space equates to our intimate space and you might find yourself recoiling while your business associate may get the impression that you are stand-offish.  In the Netherlands, this might be reversed due to the fact that their personal space equates to our social space.  Do your homework and be sensitive to cultural differences in this area.  You may find it interesting to take a look at even when dealing with business people at home as we mix more and more with professionals from other cultures in our everyday dealings.

Use of Slang

When using slang in a business environment, you might want to keep in mind that what means one thing to us might have no meaning, or a very different meaning, to a business man or woman from another culture.  I have some personal experiences in this area, some humorous, others quite embarrassing!

One of my business associates and I were talking with his business partner from South Africa.  Even though we were all speaking English, one of the phrases we used caused his partner to go completely silent.  We had both reassured him that we would keep him in the loop regarding some aspect of the business.  It wasn’t until two weeks later that he re-established contact with us and shared that he finally understood what we really had meant.  You see, in his dialect, we had told him that we would keep him preganant!  Not at all what we had intended, I can assure you.

In another case, we learned that some European countries don’t have a direct translation for “word of mouth”, so they translate it to “mouth to mouth”.  I had to explain that this has a totally different connotation in the USA.  There were a lot of people over here getting quite excited about this “mouth-to-mouth” marketing taking place in Europe!

It took me a few minutes to figure out what my Australian associates were saying when upon meeting me they all said (incredibly fast): “g’daymight”.  I finally had to ask and was told:  “Oh, for our American friend here – we are saying ‘good day mate’.”

There is a very accurate and complete slang dictionary at the following website which you might find useful when traveling around the world:


If you have the ability to consult with someone in that country who is familiar with that culture before interacting with the business people, jump at it.  It was invaluable to me to be able to have my Israeli Director in BNI, Sam Schwartz, coach me regarding the Orthodox Jewish custom of not shaking hands with someone from the opposite gender.  He and his associates effectively coached me on how to recognize when a business woman was an Orthodox Jew, by noting if she was wearing any type of head covering (a normal hat would not have been recognized by me as this type of indicator, had he not coached me in this), or a knee-length skirt with opaque tights worn underneath so that no skin was visible.  Again, I would not have even noticed that this was any type of indication, but he was able to clue me in. 

As you have the opportunity to network with others from different cultures and countries, don’t hesitate because you are not sure how your actions will be interpreted.  Do your homework ahead of time.  One great resource for information on customs and business etiquette is www.ExecutivePlanet.com.  When I have the opportunity to travel to another country to do business, I often check in here to be sure I’m not going to make an inappropriate gesture, remark or other offensive behavior.

Networking basics are universal; with some care for taking into account those cultural nuances that will give you a leg up, you can be assured that your networking etiquette will be appreciated here at home and as your business takes you into other countries.

Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author.  He is also the Founder & Chairman of BNI (www.bni.com), the world’s largest referral organization with thousands of Chapters in dozens of countries around the world.  His latest book, Truth or Delusion can be seen at www.TruthorDelusion.com.  Dr. Misner is also the senior partner of the Referral Institute, a referral training company (www.referralinstitute.com). He resides in Southern California with his wife, Elisabeth, and their three children. He can be reached at misner@bni.com .