Ever felt embarrassed after a joke that misfired or a culturally inappropriate comment or behavior? We’ve all been there and even politicians are no exception to the rule. We all remember President Obama’s diplomatic gaffe when at a dinner for Queen Elizabeth, he proposed a toast while the British royal and national anthem was being played. He continued talking over the music which was considered a breach of royal protocol as well as a cultural faux-pas.

As teams get more and more international, uncomfortable situations due to lack of cultural knowledge is almost inevitable. Therefore, we thought it would be reassuring to share with you some real-life examples of cultural faux-pas and misunderstandings. The good news is that it is never too late to learn and increase your cultural sensitivity to avoid these hiccups in the future.

Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments

Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones

Cultural faux-pas #1: Oh! Is it Ramadan?

I really missed having lunch with my teammates since we all started working remotely due to the pandemic. Therefore, I decided to organize a monthly virtual lunch. One day, my graphic designer showed up without any food. I joked around the fact that he probably didn’t want to share his cooking secrets with us before realizing it was Ramadan and he was actually fasting.

Claire, Marketing Manager at a Pharmaceutical Company, US.

Cultural faux-pas #2: Get your greeting right.

Being German, I remember feeling very awkward the first time my colleagues kissed me on the cheek to greet me.

Marc, Advertising Specialist at a Fashion company in Spain.

Cultural faux-pas #3: Remember that time is subjective.

A member of my team based in Mexico used to show up a few minutes late to our weekly virtual meetings. I found this frustrating  and quite disrespectful towards the other members of the team. Towards the end of one of the meetings, I calmly explained that I expected her to be on time unless she had a valid reason. She quickly apologized, but I felt a sudden sense of awkwardness. I later realized she never thought she was late before I mentioned it!

Leo, Account Manager at a Global Software firm, Sweden.

Cultural faux-pas #4: Americans have feelings too!

I remember my manager asking for our feedback about a consultant who had recently led a training session in our offices. One of my colleagues said, “I enjoyed the session even though the trainer is a bit too American!”. Being American and having worked within the team for months, I was quite offended by the comment and didn’t know how to take it.

Helen, HR Assistant at a Financial Services Organization, UK

Further reading

10 mistakes that can break virtual teams

The benefits of cross-cultural, cultural awareness and cultural competency training

Cultural faux-pas #5: Relationship to hierarchy.

I noticed a relatively new virtual member of my team from India often stayed silent during meetings unless prompted to contribute. I decided to speak to him privately and tell him that group participation was part of his performance and so he needed to speak up and actively participate. I am glad we discussed this as he explained he was not aware of this expectation because, at previous jobs, juniors were expected to only listen to senior staff members.

Sara, Lead Software Developer at an IT Company, Canada

Cultural faux-pas #6: Be aware! Yes can sometimes mean no.

A Chinese group acquired my company, and so we had a series of long meetings to discuss the new strategy and direction we were going for. I remember feeling very happy as our new colleagues agreed with us on everything! What was my surprise when a few weeks later, I received an email announcing decisions that were completely different from what I thought we had agreed on. Now I know that “yes” can mean “no” in China, as they don’t want you to be embarrassed in public.

Xavier, Journalist for a media app in China

Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments

Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones

Cultural faux-pas #7: What office hours really mean.

I am South African, and I have lived and worked in Japan for ten years. When I first started working there, I remember leaving the office once I had finished my main tasks, which was usually a bit later than official working hours. I understood later that the reason why my colleagues gave me a funny look when I left, was because I sometimes left the office before my manager, which you should avoid doing in Japan.

Charlotte, Project Manager at a Recruitment firm in Japan