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International Corner

Understanding cultural differences

by Angela Crews

When interacting with people from different cultures, it is natural to interpret their actions through your own culture's standards. However, doing so can cause misunderstandings. If you employ or conduct business with people from other countries, you can avoid misunderstandings by recognizing cultural differences, such as communication styles, religious beliefs, power structures, and attitudes toward time and work.

Your relationships with people from other cultures are enhanced when you are aware of cultural differences. In addition, understanding other cultures can help you acclimate immigrant workers to the United States and your company. Following are brief overviews of different cultural behaviors.

Latin America

Latin Americans value personal relationships. You always should begin conversations with Latin American business associates, vendors or employees by discussing family and common interests. However, Latin Americans also value hierarchy; subordinates generally do not make extended eye contact with supervisors. Instead, they show respect by looking down.

In general, Latin Americans are physically expressive. For example, many Latin Americans are touch-oriented and may linger over a handshake, which usually is somewhat soft, or touch your forearm or elbow. These touches signify friendliness and nothing more.


Asians generally are interested in building long-term relationships. When communicating with Asians, you should discuss personal issues before business. It is important to be low-key, polite and formal; resist showing emotions; and be persistent but not overly aggressive. And don't rush to fill silences. In addition, Asians' personal-space requirements are similar to U.S. standards, and touching generally is avoided.

Compared with other cultures, Asians generally have the greatest respect for hierarchy. When working with Asians, clarify rank and status differences and communicate supervisory relationships clearly.


Europeans value tradition and quality of life. In many European countries, family and leisure time are considered more important than career and financial success. In addition, Europeans display higher levels of formality than U.S. citizens. When communicating, you should address Europeans by their surnames and proper titles unless they tell you to be less formal. It is polite to refrain from interrupting and show respect for defined roles and responsibilities. When you work with Europeans, let them know your personal interests not just your vocation. Be polite but not too direct.

Personal-space requirements vary among European countries. Generally, people in Mediterranean and Eastern European countries tend to be more intimate and stand close to one another. In other European countries, people are more reserved and maintain greater personal space. It is important to be aware of this—you might offend a European by backing away if he stands close to you.

Western Europeans have similar attitudes toward time and punctuality as U.S. citizens. However, southern European cultures tend to be more relaxed. In these cultures, time is more fluid, and punctuality is regarded as less important.

Overcoming barriers

Although it is important to ensure that you and your employees are educated about other cultures, you also should have a plan to help acclimate immigrant workers to the United States and your company's culture.

The Society for Human Resource Management suggests implementing a sponsorship program that assigns current employees to immigrant employees as mentors. Mentors can help alleviate any fears immigrant employees may have and make them feel more comfortable by answering their questions.

In addition, you should provide immigrant employees with information and orientation classes about the cultural differences they can expect in the United States.

Although these efforts to educate yourself, as well as your employees, may seem time-consuming, they will benefit your business by improving communication among culturally diverse workers and business contacts, as well as help your company compete in an increasingly global business environment.

Angela Crews is NRCA's director of international relations.

Copyright 2004 National Roofing Contractors Association