Last reviewed 9 November 2023

Everyone involved in exporting knows about the barriers to trade such as tariffs, quotas and product standards and it’s a given that, when we sell to another country, we need to understand the legal regime. However, cultural requirements can be just as important but are often much more difficult to define.

In this article, Tim Hiscock discusses the cultural rules and how they are mostly generalities about how people in a particular country behave. Not everyone conforms, and in any case, the customs change over time, sometimes quite rapidly.

Language barriers

Most exporters will rightly consider language when they make their export plans. That is challenging in itself, and the problems often occur because of what words imply rather than the actual intended message itself. For example, lots of languages have a word which means yes, but is used more emphatically. In German it’s “jawohl” and the French have the word “si” which is often used instead of “oui” when contradicting someone. English does not have an equivalent, so students learning English are taught to say, “Yes of course!” instead. It works fine when the response is a welcome one, but it can be misused when the answer is less welcome, for example, “Have you stopped serving breakfast?” answered with, “Yes, of course!” sounds brusque, and in a business environment this can also be misconstrued as unfriendly.

Cultural barriers

Cultural barriers go well beyond language. Aspects such as a dominant religion can determine which foods are acceptable and which aren’t, as well as styles of clothing. But these rules vary among countries that follow the same religion, and even between different regions of a single country.

Cultural barriers are often so ingrained in behaviour that it can be hard to recognise the issue until after it becomes a problem. A manufacturer of baby food had to learn the hard way that a picture of a baby on the packet caused confusion and not a little alarm when the product was launched in Ethiopia. There were many people who couldn’t read or write, and packaging traditionally carried a picture of the content to make it easy to identify. No wonder people were confused!

Colours can have varied meanings in different cultures. In China, white is associated with death and mourning. Red is closely associated with love in European and American culture, but in many African cultures, it is much more associated with death and grief.

In many parts of the world, it’s considered unclean to use the left hand for eating or for handing money or a business card to someone. This is awkward for those of us who are left-handed, but left-handedness itself can be something of an oddity in some cultures. This is because young children are disciplined for preferring their left hand and taught to adapt, just as was the case in Britain until a few generations ago.

Acknowledging differences

Learning these basic rules can only take us so far, however. In some cultures, the habits and traditions are almost instinctive. And of course, it’s not always necessary to assimilate our products in every way, so that they slip seamlessly into local use. The fact that a product is unfamiliar can sometimes be part of its attraction. A cheese sandwich in Japan can seem a bit exotic, just like sushi once was in Britain. Neither is rendered less attractive on account of its “foreign” attributes.

Understanding and appreciating the complex, often unwritten, rules of a culture requires patience and empathy. As the growth of e-commerce continues, there’s an often under-estimated role for a local representative that is perhaps growing in importance, and that’s to be an arbiter of local culture, mores and good taste.

So, when building a business in a new market, we must expect to make the occasional mistake, which can sometimes lead to a major setback. We need to be aware of the potential for making cultural mistakes, even in markets that seem familiar. Essentially, we need to approach every new market with an open mind and a completely blank sheet of paper. Sometimes, we might not even be sure who our target customers will be, or how our products will be used. Question everything is a good maxim and be prepared to listen and make adjustments where feasible. Sometimes these are quite simple things, such as colours or brand names.

We also need to understand how typical business cultures vary, because this can determine how we are viewed by a potential customer or business partner and will also affect the decision-making process. In some countries it’s easy to arrange a meeting with a target customer, even if they have never met you, while in other countries, people may not feel comfortable with a meeting until they have had considerable time to consider your products and offers. Gaining an understanding of this, is important when progress seems to be slow in some countries. It’s not uncommon in some cultures to go through numerous meetings with a series of people in the hierarchy. Other cultures favour more horizontal lines of authority: that’s just the way it is.


Most of all, understand that culture is a constantly changing thing, and in many countries, the pace of change in the 21st century is greater than ever before. It’s good to read up and take advice on local culture, it’s also wise to recall things that we have learned previously. But we need to be aware that what was true even a short while ago might no longer be the case now. And of course, cultural rules are just generalities. Not everyone follows the same rules in exactly the same way. The key role in selling is to listen actively. When we think we know what our customers want better than they do, we are on dangerous ground. Never assume, always enquire, and be always be prepared to learn something new.