The importance of culture when managing international projects


International projects are usually remotely managed and involve less developed organizations and diverse cultures. These factors add complexity and are more challenging for business professionals than purely domestic projects.

Many individuals and organizations overlook these characteristics and miss an avenue to enhance performance. This paper will provide the participants with a basic understanding of some world cultures, along with proven ways to apply practical methods in their professional interchanges. This information is based on the presenter’s experience working on various projects in such locations as China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, The Philippines, Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, and The Dominican Republic.


Conducting business on a global scale requires a good understanding of different cultures. What works in your country might not work well in another and might even be interpreted as an insult. One of the many roles of an effective project manager is to raise awareness about cultural issues within your project team and organization to ensure success.

We are living in a period in which trade is becoming more global every day. The availability of fast communication between people and places has boosted many companies to expand in other countries. Yet, cultural differences are the most sustainable features companies need to consider in the strategic planning for setting up abroad. A firm needs to become progressively more aware of foreign cultures when aiming toward a successful future in the international business environment. Attitudes toward work and material possessions, entrepreneurship, willingness to accept risk, politics, religion, customs, and a woman’s role vary in different regions. The challenges are how we react to and work with these differences.

Cultural Understanding = Project Success

Over the past two decades, I have witnessed many cultural blunders that have caused organizations to suffer financially. One such example is as follows:

Lack of Cultural Awareness = Paying a Higher Price for Products

Recently, I was assisting a start-up international corporation with operations in Asia. The Asian division (not China) was buying kits from China and performing the final assembly in their country. During my engagement with this client, I noticed many instances of miscommunication due to lack of cultural aptitude. They handled their Chinese counterparts as if they were part of their own culture and made no attempt to learn and apply Chinese culture. I needed to spend most of my time in China, constantly resolving conflicts between my client and the prime Chinese supplier; consequently, the relationship suffered. Most of these issues could have been avoided with the application of some cultural savvy.

When the world recession hit in 2008, material prices dropped significantly. The main supplier was asked to lower her prices because material was the major cost component. This supplier refused to lower her prices. The owner told me “unofficially” that she was not willing to lower her prices because of the difficulty in doing business with my client. The root cause, the “difficulty,” was mostly cultural.

An example of the above is the manner in which these Asians communicated with the Chinese. There were many instances in which direction was given to either my client’s personnel in China or a Chinese supplier, and actions did not occur as expected due to some misunderstanding; they responded by using the term “I told you very clearly.” Just because some verbiage is clear to the sender does not mean that it is clear to the receiver (especially one who is not using the sender’s native language). There was a failure to realize that the Chinese did not possess the same level of English proficiency as the other Asians and that one must confirm understanding and the resultant actions with a follow-up telephone call.

My client paid a higher price and has an unmotivated supplier due to their lack of cultural sensitivity and application.

Fortunately, I grew up in a different culture at home than I experienced out of my home; this has helped me in my dealings with over 30 cultures throughout Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Project results were always significantly better when I took the time to learn and apply the local culture.

Understanding and applying culture results in the following benefits:

  • Aids communication
    • •    Culture more defines communication style (rather than language)
  • Establishes Immediate Rapport / Builds Positive Relationships
    • •    Relationships are more important in low cost regions than in the west
  • Enhances Team Motivation / Buy-in
  • Enables cooperation
  • Postures the professional and organization for success

“It is not right or wrong, good or bad, it is just different”

(Mark C. Hehl, 1997)

This quote was the author’s response after a trip to Asia. I was telling a family member about something experienced while there and she responded with a negative remark (which I cannot remember). The above quote was my response. The point here is that one will encounter different behaviors and communication methods while travelling abroad and it is not wise to judge these differences, just accept them. Also, what we do and accept as normal will very often seem strange to foreigners.

Overview of Major World Cultures

The following are some very basic highlights of cultures and tips based on the writer’s experience. Note: This is a very limited discussion, because each culture is the subject of its own publication.

North America

In North America, we think in terms of whatever it takes to close the deal fast, “We tend to push, push, and push. When you are involved globally, you have to get to know everyday cultures, from sitting down to dinner to learning taboos.” Things move slower overseas! Here is one example:

As of this writing, my daughter teaches at an international school in Switzerland, a typical western culture: fast, streamlined, and efficient. In a few months, she will be teaching at another international school in a third world country. Getting the proper visa three years ago in Switzerland was uneventful; however, she is experiencing a rude awakening dealing with the bureaucracy, inflexibility, and slow process in getting her new work visa. Hopefully, the visa will be issued before she needs to be in this country for work.

North Americans communicate directly, whereas this is not the norm in other parts of the world. Learn to read between the lines or find someone who can!

Another rather unique characteristic is our reliance on contracts and the legal system. There are more lawyers in the United States, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Just because it is in the contract, does not mean that it will be accomplished! (A contract is still needed and is recommended.). In most low-cost regions, personal relationships are more valued, so work hard to foster these relationships!

North Americans tend to be individualistic, straightforward, direct, and have no problem challenging authority. “Time is money” is something that most North Americans believe, but these values are not shared by people in other parts of the world.


Personal dignity (“manzi”—saving face) is important to the Chinese. Be careful to not say or do anything that could result in someone losing face.

Unlike westerners, the Chinese respect and will not challenge authority. A “yes” answer can mean just that they know you are speaking and nothing more and may not necessarily infer understanding, agreement, or that action will take place. You may never hear them say “no.”

The Chinese may seem unfriendly when being introduced, because they are taught to not show excessive emotion.

Use both hands when presenting business cards, and be sure the printing faces the person to whom you are presenting your card. Cards should also be received with both hands. Do not write on the card or immediately put it in a pocket or bag because this is considered rude.

Do not be surprised when asked personal questions regarding age, marital status, children, family, income, and job; these questions are asked to seek common ground. On the other hand, the Chinese are uncomfortable with American familiarity, particularly early in a relationship.

The arm around the shoulder or a pat on the back with a “just call me Bob” approach should be avoided. Humility is the norm, so avoid bragging or boasting.

Remember that relationships (“guanzhi”) are what make “the business world go around.”

The Chinese do not like to be touched, particularly by strangers, so do not hug, back slap, or put your arm around someone’s shoulder.

Western gestures that are taboo in China include:

  • Pointing the index finger—use your open hand instead
  • Using the index finger to call someone—use the hand with the fingers motioning downward as in waving.
  • Finger snapping
  • Showing the soles of the shoes
  • Whistling is considered rude.

Chinese customs that annoy Westerners:

  •      •       Belching or spitting on the street
  • Lack of consideration when smoking and failure to ask permission to smoke
  • Slurping food
  • Talking while eating


Indian society is influenced by the “caste system” and individuals usually accept their relative position. The upper caste expects to be catered to.

It is expected that individuals arrive on time; however, sometimes a double standard applies because your Indian associates may arrive late.

There is a strong family orientation, so inquiring about family is important,

Relationships (sometimes more than facts) and developing trust are important. Do not rely on the contract alone. Just because it is in the contract does not mean that it will get done!

Head shaking from side to side indicates agreement and is not a negative gesture.

Decisions are made slowly, so be patient (not easy for North Americans!).

The mindset is that “The boss knows best”; hence, hierarchy can sometimes get in the way.

Indirect communication is the norm, so learn to read between the lines.

To avoid offending your host, always accept refreshments when offered.

The Philippines

Filipinos (Pinoys) are emotional, warm, friendly, and a genuine pleasure to work with. They are eager to learn, flexible, positive, handle a crisis well, and their alignment with North Americans is better than most. American English, by law, is used as the teaching medium in the public school system; thus, there are no communication issues.

Maintaining “face” and upholding an individual’s reputation are vital components of the Philippine culture. In the Philippines, expressing anger, negativity, or experiencing public embarrassment results in a “loss of face” and as such has negative consequences.

Closely related to the concept of “face,” the Philippine style of communication is indirect and takes into consideration the perception of the recipient. In order to save face and remain courteous, Filipinos rarely give a direct answer of “no” and will avoid disagreement, rejection, and confrontational behavior, especially when a superior is involved. The word “yes” is often used to disguise more negative responses and avoid causing embarrassment or offending someone.

The pace of doing business in the Philippines is slow and the decision-making process tends to be detailed and protracted.

Filipinos tend to be non aggressive, laid back, and show up late for appointments.

Pinoys like to joke and laugh a lot and they respond to an open and friendly communication style.

Polite and respectful, they are eager to please those in authority and tend to avoid challenging them.

Latin America

There are twenty different countries with distinct cultures in Latin America, so avoid placing them in one category.

Most Latin Americans speak Spanish, except in Brazil, where the national language is Portuguese. There are some variations in the Spanish language from country to country, and some words that are offensive in one country are acceptable in others.

Ensure that your translations are properly done. When planning product specifications, remember the story of Chevrolet’s attempt to promote a new car called the “Chevy Nova.” No one anticipated that, in Latin America, it would be interpreted as “No va,” which loosely translates into “won’t go.” The car was quickly renamed the “Caribe.”

In all Latin countries, the attitude toward time is less rigid than in North American countries. Delays should not come as a surprise. Do not arrive on time for a social event; arrive at least 30 minutes late.

Latinos usually stand close together during conversations, so be prepared for this as well casual touching and, of course, the “abrazo,” or embrace, among good friends.

Latinos are very warm and friendly people and enjoy social conversation before getting down to business. Social conversation is a calculated process aimed at getting to know you personally and becoming friends. Latinos tend to be more interested in you, the person, than you as the representative of some faceless corporation.

Avoid using a business associate’s first name until you’re invited to do so. Such an invitation usually doesn’t take long, because Latinos are generally warm and friendly. In the meantime, use the more formal “Mr.” or, even better, “Señor,” and if your associate has a title, use it.

Wait until your host takes his or her seat before sitting down for a meal at the table. Always stand when a woman joins or leaves the table, and don’t eat until everyone is served. And, here’s a surprisingly different thing to remember: when dining with Latin Americans, keep your hands on the table, not in your lap.

Negotiations may appear difficult, and it’s wise to get everything in writing. Make sure you are meeting with the decision makers; otherwise, your contract or bid approval may take much longer than anticipated because it will need to make its way up the corporate hierarchy

Avoid a hard-sell approach; you don’t want to risk failure by creating resentment. It’s also important to make and retain eye contact if you want to be seen as trustworthy.

In Latin America, it’s always considered good form to ask about your associate’s family and remember such details as the names and ages of his or her children.

Northern Europe

In general, Northern European culture is similar to North American culture: legalistic, non tactile, and eager to get down to business fast. The management style tends to be more autocratic and titles are important. Leisure time is valued highly.

Northern Europeans are scientific, data driven, thorough in their approaches, and they fulfill their commitments. It is difficult to pressure them to speed things up, because, if you do you will be lectured on why they need to be accurate and thorough.

Dress codes are conservative, and it is a good idea to know and initiate a conversation with some basic phrases in the local language, even though English is widely spoken.

Southern Europe

Southern Europeans are more laid back and tasteful attire is the norm. In some parts of Italy, brown shoes are considered casual dress and should not be worn for business meetings.

Business should be started only after some casual conversation, because these individuals are friendly and tactile.

Applying Cultural Savvy

When encountering other cultures, one should show respect, remain open minded, and avoid stereotyping. Advance research about the culture, its history, and some language basics are important and are worth learning. When dealing with individuals, it is important to demonstrate genuine interest in the new culture and its history. Take the time to stop, look, listen, and enjoy the enriching experience. Understand and apply this new way of communicating and dealing with your counterparts in other countries.

The best option is to invest in cross-cultural training for all the stakeholders involved in dealing with foreign cultures. This investment will pay dividends many times over!

Remember: “It is not right or wrong, good or bad, it is just different.”

© 2010, Mark Hehl
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC



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