Humour in business An injudicious joke can be costly

Getting a visa during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia is no picnic. Dive into our tales of  intercultural business faux pas, where 'inshallah' takes on new meaning.

Andrea Valentino, Gastautor
Asian woman listens to western man in business setting
© istockphoto/Kavuto

Many years ago, Yang Soo Kim was asked to get a foreign visitor’s visa for his boss, who was arriving soon from Seoul. This was hardly unusual for executives in international businesses - until you appreciate where the South Korean was living. Far from the relative familiarity of Taipei or Tokyo, Kim found himself in Saudi Arabia, and things were not going well.

His superior’s visit had coincided with Ramadan, a time when Saudi bureaucracy slows to a crawl. It didn’t help that Kim had been in the Middle East long enough to know all about the rather relaxed ways of his hosts. "‘No problem at all! Inshallah!" Kim recalls the official at the visa office replying to his urgent request, quoting the Arabic term for "God willing". As he adds, the term can mean "yes" or "no" across the Middle East, hardly the certainty he was looking for.

The journey of Yang Soo Kim: a real-life culture clash

Yang Soo Kim
Yang Soo Kim
Warned that he’d be sacked if the vital visa didn’t come through, Kim, now an intercultural communication professor at Middle Tennessee State University, dug in. Over the next two hours, he flattered, he argued, and he begged, until finally he received absolute confirmation that the document would be ready on time, which in the end it was. "They probably thought I was a crazy Korean," he remembers of the experience, before pausing and adding that he thought the same in reverse.

Of course, most businesspeople are unlikely to be faced with a culture clash on the scale of Yang Soo Kim, a well-organized Korean floundering in the laidback Arab world. But with global trade hitting USD 28.5 trillion in 2021, the question remains: how, exactly, should workers contend with unfamiliar cultures? And visa dramas aside, are the differences between far-flung offices really as vast as we think?

The growing market for cross-cultural training

If business is increasingly international, corporations are increasingly multicultural. According to recent research by Technavio, a leading global market research company, the global market for cross-cultural training is expected to enjoy annual growth of 7.05% through 2027 - a boost of over USD 1.8 billion.

Beyond the headline figures, experts have noticed similar trends in their conversations with corporate leaders. Over the past few decades, much of the boardroom chatter has been around "how important international cultural differences are," according to Professor Vasyl Taras, a specialist in corporate culture at the University of North Carolina.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing
French President Emmanuel Macron and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing © Keystone/AFP/Ludovic Marin

Quite aside from the straightforward business pressures, when 99 of America’s 100 largest industrial corporations now produce goods abroad, and brands as varied as Heineken and Subway have been tripped up by ill-informed foreign research, this enthusiasm isn’t hard to understand.

Learning from past mistakes: case studies of cultural missteps in business

Lunch during the visit of a German delegation to Tianjin, China
Lunch during the visit of a German delegation to Tianjin, China © Jose Giribas/SZ Photo/laif

For one thing, Taras stresses the increasing emphasis across corporate life on "sensitivity" and how to avoid causing offence. Furthermore, with the rise of Zoom, workers can now encounter alien customs without even leaving home. Nor is this point merely anecdotal: a recent study found that 89% of white-collar workers "at least occasionally" complete virtual projects with colleagues from other cultures.

The practical consequences of a cultural slipup can be severe - more severe even than a missed visa. About to ink an agreement with a touring Chinese delegation, for instance, one American businessman casually told his counterpart to "sit where you like" at a celebratory dinner. Offended at the suggestion that guests wouldn’t be placed by seniority, the visitors left without signing the contract. 

The KLM CEO's comments led to the collapse of the deal and ultimately cost the Dutch EUR 250 million.

Leo van Wijk, former CEO of KLM, at a press conference on the planned merger of Air France and KLM
Leo van Wijk, former CEO of KLM, at a press conference on the planned merger of Air France and KLM © Reporters/laif

Humor can be another source of trouble. On the verge of buying Italian airline Alitalia back in 1999, the former CEO of Dutch KLM dismissed the supposed cultural differences between Italy and the Netherlands by remarking that "the Dutch like Italian pizza and the Italians like Dutch football." Apart from being a helpful reminder not to question Italian sporting prowess, the resulting uproar led to the collapse of the deal, and ultimately left the Dutch EUR 250 million out of pocket. 

As these disasters imply, appreciating your audience before you open your mouth can go a long way towards keeping them on side. "My general advice is that if you do not understand the culture, then don’t make jokes,"is how Chris Smit, a corporate coach, puts it to aspiring office humorists. It’s a principle that can surely be applied elsewhere as well.

Subtleties of corporate culture: gift-giving and beyond


Chris Smit
Like the Chinese restaurant debacle, meanwhile, the specifics of corporate difference can be remarkably subtle. To explain what he means, Smit offers the example of gift-giving. While the French value wine when smoothing professional relationships, he finds that Indian entrepreneurs prefer whisky – and expensive whisky at that. In the same vein, gifting something to a Dutchman before negotiations take place risks being perceived as bribery. This isn’t necessarily a problem for other nationalities.

Short of transforming themselves into C-suite anthropologists, can relying on cultural clichés help managers navigate these potholes? Perhaps.

Kim, for instance, suggests that his fellow Koreans put a lot of emphasis on personal relationships at work. This means they may be offended by suggestions to draft official contracts between friendly business partners. Legal-minded Europeans would still insist on this. Kim also argues that Koreans, like other East Asians, are less blunt when communicating, which can leave foreign managers scrambling to uncover the truth about how a project is going. 

Clearly, some clichés are borne out by the statistics. As one 2020 survey found, some 24% of Middle Eastern respondents put particular value on authority in the workplace. Eastern Europeans, for their part, seem to care a lot about preparedness and business continuity, while South Americans are more relaxed about this.

Yet for all these undoubted differences, since even broad stereotypes ultimately stem from somewhere, Taras argues that what unites us counts for far more. "The protocols may be different," he says, "but the effects on the workplace seem to be exaggerated." Especially in our globalized world, Taras adds, research has found that personal foibles like lateness or bossiness often impact an office much more than deep cultural chasms. 

The power of adaptability in overcoming cultural barriers

Kim makes a similar point. Honesty, integrity and simple hard work - all these, he argues, are traits bound to instill loyalty in whoever you encounter.

And if you still find yourself bewildered by Chinese seating plans and Indians' love of whisky? This may sound surprising given his bruising experience in Saudi Arabia, but Kim argues that embracing adaptability isn’t a bad idea. "I realized how ethnocentric I was," he admits of his skirmish at the visa office. "I’m not saying we should compromise on everything - but we should be more flexible." Perhaps inshallah is a good term to live by after all.

Different cultures, different people

Intercultural misunderstandings: The drawbacks of Skype, chats & co.

E-mails, video conferences and emojis: virtual communication comes with its share of challenges, especially in a cross-cultural context. Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for.

Business across cultures: a risk or an opportunity?

Zurich-based entrepreneur Thomas Huber makes furniture, which is manufactured in Asia according to his designs. He recently established an interesting contact with an Indonesian manufacturer and so decides to fly there to establish what he sees as a promising collaboration. At the company, he...
Barbara Vinken

What is style, Prof. Vinken?

Ms. Vinken, style is a word we use every day, and we categorize a whole range of things according to whether they are stylish – or not. What exactly is style? It might help to think about the distinction between language as a system of rules and speaking as a concrete instance of the use of...
Prendre contact