Cultural differences: how to avoid blunders

How can you avoid making cultural blunders in Europe? The differences may seem negligible but your choice of words could determine whether or not you manage to clinch the deal. Jeremy Bos, Director of EMEA Commercial Marketing at BCD Travel, knows what he is talking about.

Spot the differences

‘I always thought people were exaggerating if they commented on the great cultural differences within Europe. Now that I manage people in Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Sweden, I’m experiencing this for myself. This is generally a good thing as the nationalities complement one another.’


‘The most important thing is to recognize and respect the differences. This doesn’t mean that you always have to adapt; it does mean that you have to make conscious choices. As a Dutch person, I am more direct than my employees. In a discussion with my team, I use this characteristic to get to the point more quickly. When I meet new people, I am more cautious. I try to be less direct and I choose my words more carefully. Each situation requires an individual approach.’


‘At our team meetings I greet everyone in their own language. That makes things more personal and relieves tension immediately. People who conduct business internationally should, in any case, learn the local greeting. Words such as, “please”, “thank you” and “goodbye” can also work wonders.’

Choice of words

‘We translate many marketing expressions into the local language simply because this is more successful. In such cases our local colleagues have the final word. In Sweden we once wanted to use an expression containing the word ‘switch’. However people in Sweden apparently associate that word with a rather questionable Swedish television program. My colleague in Stockholm knew this. You should also be careful with different versions of a language. For example, Dutch and Flemish are not exactly the same. If you want to make a reservation in Dutch, you need to use the word “reservering”. However, in Flemish this is called a “reservatie”. They do understand what the Dutch word means but using the correct word is a show of respect that will be appreciated.’


‘The Germans and the French have a more hierarchical attitude than the Dutch. They appreciate being addressed more formally and like a longer introduction before any direct questions are asked. This applies to personal contact as well as written communication. With regard to your email footer, you could use the international format for your telephone number to make things easier for the recipient. If you have a local office, you could also give the address information in the footer of emails sent to that country. In other words, put yourself in the shoes of the recipient.’


‘Images can also be culturally significant. What works in one country may completely miss the mark in another country. We sometimes test these aspects via social media by using different images or slogans and comparing the results. This shows us what works best.’

Be open

‘Whether we are talking about personal meetings, written messages or marketing expressions, cultural differences always come into play in an international business situation. You must be prepared and, more importantly, you must pay attention. Listen carefully to your conversation partners; try to sense what is working and what makes them feel comfortable. If possible, ask for help from a local partner or colleague who is familiar with the local language, culture and customs.’

Efficient team meeting

‘If you want to organize a meeting with your international team, you could consider alternative destinations. I am located in the Netherlands and my team is scattered over Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Sweden. However for a team meeting last year, Barcelona proved to be the most efficient choice, both logistically and in terms of cost, even though none of the team members live in Spain.’

Should you arrive precisely on time or a few minutes late? Does your business partner expect a bow or a firm handshake? Check out these 5 extra tips to overcome cultural differences.