What is Business Culture?

In 1976 Raymond Williams famously observed ‘culture’ as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. And yet the evidence of culture is something that is all around us constantly. To make matters more complex most of us are also aware of the presence of different cultures or at least culture differences. Sometimes we are aware of snippets of advice about interacting with other cultures such as “Always wait to shake hands” or “Never use first names at the first introduction”. The advice is often wooly can sound like a piece of folklore. Worryingly the advice that we hear in this way can sometimes be completely incorrect.

All of this can appear amusing and is the source of many jokes for stand-up comedians. With the added dimension of trying to conduct transnational business any misunderstanding and the potential to cause offence can become very real and represent a loss of millions of pounds (or euros). Add in the further complexity of social media where the traditional visual cues of a gesture or a tone are lost and you could be excused for wondering how business is ever successfully conducted internationally.

These are exactly the concerns that the EU-funded Passport to Trade 2.0 project tackles through its businessculture.org website. The site contains a range of free resources that covers the basics of conducting business across cultures as well as a series of countries guides for the member states of the European Union.

A unique element of businessculture.org is the attention to the social media differences that exist between countries and the importance of recognising how these differences can have an impact on doing business. A quick scan of the social media entry for Portugal reveals a very different landscape to say the UK or Finland. Usefully there are also pointers to social networks that will not be familiar to the uninitiated. Star Tracker was certainly a new one to me. Reading the entry for Portugal also reminded me of the need to consider of age and access issues within individual countries. A combination of issues that has become almost entirely assumed in the UK and elsewhere.

Businessculture.org is useful for the broadest range of activities too. Reading through the entry for Sweden finally explained to me why everyone was so well-dressed at an end-of-day conference session a few years ago.

The Passport to Trade 2.0 project is never going to help clarify the definition of ‘culture’ but then that luckily isn’t its purpose. As a tool for encouraging business and to help SMEs to explore European markets you can’t really go past this free resource.

And yes, language is an important dimension of culture. Businessculture.org is offered in nine different languages that represents the geographic span of Europe. I am almost embarrassed to say that I can only confirm the merits of the English content.


Dr Gordon Fletcher
Salford Business School

Co-director Centre for Digital Business,

Senior Lecturer in Information Systems / Head of Academic Unit (International Operations and Information Management)