Tips to prepare yourself for cultural differences

Every country has its own culture, customs and habits, and if you conduct business internationally, you will likely be confronted with these differences. If you know in advance what to watch out for, you will increase your chances of succeeding in business. The tips in this article will help you get started.

An English business owner might tell you he finds your plans ‘very interesting’ after you share them with him while enjoying a drink together. You are thrilled initially, but then you learn that you failed to read the signs, as the Englishman is actually far from impressed with your plan. “This is a familiar example, but it really does happen in reality,” says Raymond Smid, a partner at export management recruiter ExportSelect. He shares some tips for dealing with international cultural differences. In addition, you will find out how business owners from different cultural background regard Dutch people. 

1. Learn about the country’s etiquette

As an export manager with many years of experience, Smid has developed familiarity with many different parts of the world, both through his business ventures and through other people’s experiences. He tells us that “British people will tell you one thing, but really mean something else.” 

He therefore recommends that you always learn about your business partner first. It helps to ask them open-ended questions, as this way you prevent your business associate from answering questions awkwardly with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. “If you are looking to reach a deal, you should be patient and bide your time. Dutch people tend to be quite direct, so you should first take time to get to know each other better and work on building trust. Then, when you get to the negotiation stage, you can ask your business partner to make a commitment.” This is the time to switch to a more businesslike tone in the conversation, when you proceed to sign the contract. 

Saying ‘no’ outright is simply not an option in many cultures; this is often perceived as too direct and inappropriate. You should therefore watch your business partner’s body language closely, so you can find out whether someone really means ‘no’ when they tell you ‘yes’. Each country has its own etiquette, so you should always educate yourself on the country and the culture before you visit. 

Smid: “You should even do this for neigbouring countries. Belgium is the trickiest export country for Dutch exporters, because there are so many pitfalls. We think that Belgium is the same as the Netherlands, but it really is not.” For example, Belgians are more formal and less direct than the Dutch. We are not always prepared for that, because we speak the same – or at least a very similar – language. 

2. Talk to your colleagues 

In other words, you need to do your homework. But how? Information from various institutions, embassies, and government authorities provide a solid foundation. However, Smid believes you will learn the most through conversations with colleagues. “Talk to your colleagues who work in exports about their experiences. I have personally been doing this through a networking club, ExportConnect. They will be happy to give you some pointers, provided you are not a competitor. While having casual drinks with a few colleagues, you will share stories about what it is really like: what really goes on in the countries you plan to do business with.” 

During these casual interactions, you might even meet people who live and do business in these countries. This way, you can lay the foundation for a personal network. Doing business without a local network is often impossible. 

Put your business partner on a pedestal

3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes 

Although there are plenty of tips to be shared for each individual country (in Dutch), Smid believes there is one bit of advice that always comes first: show respect. “Put your business partner on a pedestal and always try to empathise with their positions.” As an example, he cites accepting business cards. “We Dutch people tend to barely glance at someone’s business card and casually slip it into our back pocket, but there are many countries where it is appreciated that you pay attention to it.” Presenting multilingual business cards is thoughtful, especially in countries where the Roman alphabet is not used, such as China and the Arab world. 

Adapt as much as possible in your interactions with your international partner – respect for the other culture will boost your business opportunities. Try to understand the cultural differences and deal with these differences, while at the same time maintaining your personal boundaries. 

4. Think in terms of hierarchy 

Check with your business partner who is authorised to sign the agreement. You can only do business if your contact has the appropriate level of responsibility. Learn more about the person’s background before meeting with them. Smid: “Think in terms of hierarchy. We are not really crazy about hierarchy in the Netherlands; we are really the exception, along with the Scandinavian countries.” 

If several people in your business are involved in international activities, find out who the right person is for a deal. Smid: “In some countries, the experience of your business partner is relevant when you do business, but there is also the person’s character, knowledge, and talents.” 

5. Visit your business associates 

Smid had noticed that working and holding meetings online has become commonplace since the outbreak of the COVID 19 pandemic, but still recommends that you visit your business associates. “If you have known each other for 20 years, online relationship management is not an issue. You might travel to see them once every two years, as opposed to every year.” 

With new clients, Smid feels a face-to-face meeting is preferred. “In those cases, I think personal interaction is essential, as it adds a personal touch that is otherwise lacking. Sometimes it is in the details: in non-verbal communication, the office layout, local partners, or who happens to be paying for dinner.” 

If you can manage it, say a couple of words or sentences in your host country’s language

Having dinner with your business partner might be a good idea, as combining business with pleasure is common all over the world. “It is at times like these that you close the best deals. However, you should be alert to what topics of conversation you should and should not raise. Avoid subjects such as sex, politics, and religion, as they tend to be sensitive.” 

“If you can manage it, say a couple of words or sentences of your host country’s language.” No one will expect you to have a flawless command of the language, but people will certainly appreciate any effort you make. When meeting your business associate for the first time, you should not show up too early, and certainly not too late. In countries with a more leisurely pace of life, your business associate might arrive a little late for your appointment. Note that this should not be considered insulting, but a custom, and even a form of politeness. Smid advises keeping your business associate updated on the appointment: “Especially if you are running a little late.” 

Special approach to doing business with the Dutch 

While Germans are known for their punctuality and Spaniards for their temperaments, Dutch business owners are also regarded in a certain way. “We are viewed as being very direct. We tend to get straight to the point without any further ado, and some business partners do not necessarily appreciate that. It is something we need to be aware of,” Smid says. On the positive side, he adds, Dutch people are generally regarded by foreign business partners as trustworthy and capable. 


Luana Ferreira, the Amsterdam-based owner of Stories for a Better World, has a tip to share with Dutch business owners: “In personal relationships, Dutch people tend to be a little reserved, and as a Brazilian, I feel I can teach you to let go a little and be more spontaneous. You can brighten people’s mood by adding some levity, telling an amusing anecdote.” 

‘Personal rapport’ 

Eliane Khoury, owner of VFA Solutions in Schiedam, has observed how Dutch people always want to put everything in writing, not least when they are conducting business. “In the Netherlands, you draft the contract before you start doing business. In Israel, you go out for a bite to eat and see if you have good rapport with the other person. At the end of the evening, you shake each other’s hand.” She still works on a basis of trust: “It is about the person behind all that paper.”