The Business of Culture or the Culture of Business?

By Nicholas Gagnon
Director of Sales – Americas & Global Distribution


Conducting business in Canada is certainly different than in China, but it is also different than doing business in the USA.  Understanding and respecting cultural mores and local business etiquette are essential skills needed to cultivate strong business relationships.  This Blog will look at the lessons I have learned over the years that have helped to guide my career.


Let’s go back to 1998. Titanic had just won 11 Oscars, Google is founded (can you even remember a time before Google?), John Glenn returned to space at the ripe age of 77 and everyone was talking about Bill Clinton!

After extensively traveling the US, I started traveling to Europe and then came my first trip throughout Asia, taking me to Beijing, Tianjin, Jinan, Wuhan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.  So many new sights, smells, tastes, and experiences.

Bicycles!  I remember a lot of bicycles in Beijing.  Like the countless Vespas you see in Rome, but even more!  Back then, there were more bicycles than cars.  I remember the children in Tiananmen Square looked at me in amazement saying I looked like The Hulk, minus the green.

Even though I had already traveled extensively across the US and Europe, there was a greater sense of the unknown when it came to Asia – it was like making the major leagues, and with that came greater stress and apprehension of the unknown.  Back then, people didn’t travel to Asia as much as we do now.  Other than a few colleagues, I had no friends or family who had traveled to Asia and who might have been in a position to provide some insights.

And so, I took off for Asia with the toolbox I had been building those past 3 years and the precious lesson I learned from my colleague Bruce. (Link previous post)

Lesson Number Two: Hot Tea VS Cold Water

Upon arrival, I put into practice the tricks I had picked up in Europe, namely, to speak slowly.  When you mix nerves with your second language, you tend to sound like you have an F1 motor in your mouth.  It’s important to slow down, not just to facilitate communication, but out of respect for your counterpart for whom English may very well not be the first language either. Keep your explanations simple, use body language and hand signals.  Even if your grammar is not perfect, people appreciate the effort.  Remember that a smile and laughter is a universal language!

At my very first meeting in Asia, I was kindly offered hot tea.  I politely declined and asked for cold water. To my surprise, the room started giggling and soon all 4 grown men – including myself – were laughing, though I had no idea why!  My customers kindly explained that cold water was bad for my health.  Who knew?  They brought me lukewarm tea, a kind gesture I am still grateful for today.  The meeting continued interrupted by a few jokes and more cultural learning on both sides.

Not all cultural differences will be obvious and sometimes, you will be completely in the dark.  But as a rule of thumb, people around the globe take great pride in sharing their cultures with you, especially in business.  It is always a question of respect.

By offering me hot tea, my customers had my very best interest at heart.

And you know what, tea calms nerves during meetings, who knew?