A cultural faux pas happens when someone does or says something that is culturally improper, insensitive, or even offensive. ‘Faux-pas’ is French for “misstep/false step”, so a cultural faux pas implies that the offense is caused unintentionally. Understanding how to deal with cultural differences, and how to recover from any mistakes made along the way is fundamental in today’s international business landscape. 

1.  Adopt a growth mindset

According to psychologist Carol Dweck, having a growth mindset is more about investing time and effort into learning than appearing perfect.

This is in stark contrast to a ‘fixed’ mindset where success is merely based on innate intelligence and talent.

People generally have a mixture of both mindsets but the extent to which they dominate our behavior is something we can learn to control.

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People usually experience “fixed-mindset triggers” when facing challenges, receiving criticism, or making visible mistakes.

Learning to respond to a cultural faux pas with a growth mindset is important to avoid dealing with the situation counterproductively (by being defensive, for example).

Ultimately, this means embracing mistakes as learning opportunities and actively taking steps to grow from it.

2.  Don’t underestimate the importance of cultural intelligence

Cultural intelligence, or ‘CQ’, is becoming increasingly important for the modern leader.

Deloitte names it as one of the top 6 traits of inclusive and effective leadership.

Cross-cultural knowledge is not only important to avoid cultural faux-pas but to help you to understand and interpret the behavior of international colleagues or partners.

A surface-level understanding of a culture may guide you in how to behave but an in-depth cultural knowledge allows you to grasp more nuanced characteristics.

This will allow you to be well-prepared for any international business meeting and understand what is expected of you and what you can expect from your clients.

Cultural intelligence also helps you to develop an awareness of how your own culture shapes your own perception.

Being adaptable to new cultural environments is fundamental for any successful global professional, and cultural knowledge is the key to adaptability.

3.  Acknowledge your knowledge gaps

According to psychologist George Loewenstein, curiosity arises when we become aware of a gap in our knowledge and want to fill it with information.

This is an ongoing process of pursuing our curiosity and acknowledging that we all have gaps in our knowledge.

Continuously identifying your knowledge gaps means that you don’t have to wait until you make a mistake in an important business meeting to look for answers.

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This is also very important for employers. Helping employees identify their knowledge gaps makes training far more efficient and helps companies to align staff knowledge and skillsets with business objectives.

One way to do this is to survey employees, helping them to evaluate what they already know, and to consider what they need to learn to operate successfully in various global contexts.

This approach helps to stimulate growth mindsets in employees and enhances their awareness of their specific learning needs.

4.  Be prepared

If your role involves attending meetings or public speaking events overseas, actively equip yourself with all the necessary cultural knowledge.

Find out about cultural values and norms, how hierarchy and professional conduct may differ; consider which business models you may be relying on that are culture-specific and what alternative worldviews you can incorporate into your approach.

Look into what an appropriate response would look like in that culture if a faux pas were to occur – do not assume that there is always a singular rule but consider what responses various contexts might call for.

It may be useful to work with a cultural coach or expert that can help you achieve levels of comprehension in intercultural and language skills that may otherwise be difficult to achieve alone.

Chad Lee, Regional Talent Mobility Leader at Nike, advises global professionals to immerse themselves and “be a sponge”, absorbing as much information as possible, not just from a cultural expert, but also from colleagues, vendors, and associates who may have more subjective and distinct insights to offer.

5.   Invest in key relationships

It goes without saying that building relationships is important for any professional. However, having strong relationships with your clients will come in particularly useful in mitigating the potentially harmful effects of a cultural faux-pas on business relationships.

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If a client regularly interacts with you and sees you in a positive light, they are more likely to look past your cultural faux pas and see the good intentions behind your efforts to behave appropriately. Knowing the language also helps significantly in building such key relationships.

6.  Respond appropriately

When a cultural faux pas occurs, do not respond hastily – take a moment to carefully assess the situation, drawn on the information you have learned, and respond in the best way possible.

Some circumstances may call for a formal apology, whilst others may be resolved with humor, or other light-hearted or indirect approaches.

This also depends on the dynamics of your relationship. A light-hearted approach would be more readily accepted in a context where you already have an established rapport with the other party.

7.  Self-examination

Whilst your immediate response is to incite damage control, genuine recovery from a faux pas involves self-reflection and examination to learn from your mistake.

Instead of being defensive and trying to find faults in external factors, look inwards to the things that you can control.

Reflect on what mistake you made, what led to you making that mistake, how people responded, and what precautions you could have taken to avoid it happening. Then begin to think about the ways you can use these answers to engage in active learning as you go forward.

Why Intercultural Competence is Key to a Successful International Assignment

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8.  Ask for feedback

If you have made a cultural faux pas, do not be afraid to ask for feedback to gain an understanding of how things look from the perspective of the other culture. This can give you a clear idea of where you went wrong and how you can prevent it from happening again.

This does not have to be done immediately and could take place in a more informal setting, over some coffee or lunch for example.

Furthermore, it can be useful to regularly ask for feedback from colleagues, peers, and even clients that you have built relationships with, and let them know that you are open to them pointing out anything you do that may be interpreted as culturally insensitive.

Learn from your mistakes

Making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning, but the way you deal with it will determine how much you can grow from it and the extent to which the mistake becomes harmful to parties involved. Understanding how to deal with cultural differences, and how to recover from any mistakes made when working overseas or working with multicultural colleagues is vital in today’s increasingly diverse workplace.