Look around your office.

Is everyone the same? I doubt it.

There is a likely a mix of genders, races, ethnicities and backgrounds. But they all have to work together.

It’s great that we can all work together, but keep in mind that, although we share the workspace, we might not all share common cultures and values. It’s important that we keep this in mind to prevent unintentional insult or dispute in the office.

Being culturally sensitive is the way to go and there’s a lot to consider. Here are just a few things to keep in mind when dealing with individuals of other cultures:

  • Shaking hands

Not all cultures shake hands, and those that do may not do so in the same way. When in doubt, a polite bow with your hands clasped across your chest is usually safe.

  • Eye contact

The guidelines for eye contact vary widely between cultures. Some cultures expect assertive eye contact. In other cultures, avoiding eye contact is more appropriate.

  • Humor

Humor can be a touchy subject regardless of culture. It often does not translate well, and slang or jokes are open to misinterpretation. Avoid making jokes unless you’re absolutely sure of how it will be received. Sarcasm should always be avoided.

  • Personal space

Different cultures have different expectations for personal space. North Americans, for example, feel more comfortable with a larger personal space, while Latin cultures feel comfortable with less personal space. Cultural customs for physical contact can vary widely by culture and by person. For example, in some cultures cross-gender physical contact is forbidden. In other cultures, close physical contact (such as an embrace or peck on the cheek) between business associates might be expected.

  • Introductions

Be sure to use titles and proper forms of address, including “doctor” and “mister” or “miss.” Only address people by their first name if you are invited to do so, and avoid the temptation to shorten their names (e.g. Elizabeth to Liz) or use nicknames.

  • Business cards

Different cultures handle their business cards in very particular ways. Japanese culture is very formal about treatment of a business card, traditionally handing it across with two hands and a small bow. Some cultures appreciate that you acknowledge receipt of the card by giving it a good look over, or that you ask before you make a note on the card. Be aware of the expectations that exist where you’re doing business.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘These tips are all well and good for when you are dealing in person with someone from another culture, but what about on the phone or virtually?’

Good question. I’m glad you asked.

Some of the same tips apply, for example, using humor or introducing a customer or partner on a conference call.

It pays to be flexible in all cases and keep these points in mind when dealing with multicultural groups or situations, especially in virtual situations.

  • Making Time

Time is something that is treated differently by different cultures. Certain cultural groups will arrive for appointments 10 minutes ahead of time, while other cultures have a tendency to have a less rigid approach to time.

  • Religious Standards

Make sure you learn the main religions and their standards of conduct as part of your cultural learning. Set times for prayer are very important to some religions and need to be considered when setting up meetings or travel.

  • Keeping an Open Mind

One of your goals must be to avoid any notion of ethnocentricity – the belief that one’s own ethnic group or culture is superior to another’s. Success requires developing cultural literacy, a commitment to functioning effectively with other cultures.

This may be one of those rare cases where following the Golden Rule may not be applicable. You know the old saying to ‘Do unto others as you would have done to you.’ Sometimes what is perfectly acceptable to you may be outrageously offensive to another.

Be respectful. That’s good advice in any culture.