How to avoid cultural blunders in Europe

How can you avoid making cultural blunders when doing business in Europe? Being thoughtful about what you say and how you say it can ensure you’re being polite—and help you clinch the deal. Jeremy Bos, director of EMEA Commercial Marketing at BCD Travel, offers some words of advice about choosing the right words.

Respect 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 in cultural norms across Europe. 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.”

 Know how to say hello

“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 at the very least learn the local greeting. Words such as, ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ also work wonders.”

Be a good listener

“Watch for the ways cultural differences emerge. Listen carefully to sense what’s working and what makes people feel comfortable—or uncomfortable. If possible, ask a local partner or colleague who is familiar with the language, culture and customs help you understand how cultural differences are affecting the success of your conversations and meetings.”

View things from the other perspective

“The Germans and 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.

“In addition to being polite, make doing business with you simpler for clients and colleagues from other countries. Use the international format for your telephone number to make things easier for the recipient. If you have a local office, give the address information in the footer of emails sent to that country. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient, and you’ll earn goodwill.”

Choose words carefully

“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.’ Using the correct word is a show of respect that’s appreciated.”

Test drive your messages

“Words, phrases and even images are culturally significant. What works in one country may completely miss the mark in another country. We sometimes test our messages via social media using different images or slogans. We compare the results and go with what works best.”