What Is Cultural Awareness in Business? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Orin Davis
Cultural awareness is about making the proper responses/accommodations to behaviors/norms exhibited by people from outside of one's own culture. This lesson reviews two major categories of cultural differences: food and modesty.


Suppose you are a born-and-bred Caucasian American at a business meeting in the London office, and in walks the vice president of the Tokyo office. To greet him, should you bow or shake hands? Believe it or not, the answer is to shake hands. Most non-Japanese are insufficiently acquainted with the intricacies of bowing to perform the ritual correctly, and most Japanese find the attempts awkward (to put it mildly). In walks your colleague from Israel next. Greet her with 'L'chaim!'? Not unless you are toasting her health! An account manager from Chennai walks in next, but greets you verbally without offering a hand to shake. Should you be offended? Not if you are of a different gender, as some Hindu (which are common in Chennai) avoid touching people of the opposite gender.

In all three of these cases, it takes cultural awareness to find the proper responses/accommodations to behaviors/norms exhibited by people from outside of one's own culture. While there are whole tomes written about cultural competency, most of the major issues fall under two categories: food and modesty.


Because there are so many differences in what people eat, it can be hard to know what to order or which restaurants to attend. While it may be tempting to take a guess based on the person's culture, don't! After all, there are two concerns: religious/ethical issues and allergies. The former can relate to supervision of the food (e.g., kosher, halal) or the content of the food (for example, some Hindus are vegan), while the latter pertains to items that cannot be in the dish in any form. The best course of action is to ask for what is acceptable to each person. But, if you are forced to guess, shoot for a cold, vegan dish that is gluten free, nut free, and contains nothing cooked. The reason for these conditions is that such a dish accommodates the most common allergies, religious preferences, and any personal concerns about eating animal products. That said, one is certainly better off asking, as there may be other concerns or allergies that are not obvious or known.

For example (true story!), a company once ordered a kosher meal for an Orthodox Jewish employee for a company dinner, but did not bother to read the instructions on the package for how to heat it, and ended up rendering the food non-kosher and leaving an employee at a fancy banquet with nothing to consume but water and soda.

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