Essential Principles for Navigating Cultural Differences & Language Barriers for International Success

Association expert Peter Wright from The Planning Group has some practical advice for association professionals travelling abroad. In 2007 Peter’s international endeavours heated up and as a result, he now works with clients in over 20 countries around the world.

With experience comes knowledge and Peter has shared some of the principles that he has developed over the years. “I’ve made some mistakes but I’ve learned a lot about doing business outside of North America. My clients all struggle with the same fundamental planning and execution issues: How do we add value? Where do we want to be in the future? How do we get there?”




These are a few of the successful principles Peter has developed along the way:

Don’t assume that other cultures are homogenous.

From a North American perspective, it is natural to want to treat other countries as one big culture that differs from our own. China for example, has many cultures, languages, and practices that vary from one Province to another. So this assumption is not only culturally insensitive but will lead to faulty business decisions for your organization.

Don’t equate English fluency with intelligence.

This can be easy to forget when a meeting is being conducted in English where English is the second language. Remember that if someone’s English skills are not very strong, chances are they probably speak more languages than you!

Don’t gravitate to the best English speaker in the room.

In any country this will likely come off as disrespectful. There may be situations where the most junior people at a meeting or a dinner have the strongest English skills … and the association’s president does not. As a foreign guest be aware of how much time you spend with each person. Treat client interactions similarly to how you would in North America, and set language barriers aside.

Don’t be upset if people don’t always speak English around you.

“Admittedly, there were times I felt offended when a room (or car) full of people all spoke as if I wasn’t there! My advice is to think about the situation from their perspective. If we had a German visitor at a meeting here, would we all try to speak German?” Just remember that you are visiting them, and the world doesn’t always work in English.


How does your association prepare its staff for traveling over seas? What are some of the principles you have developed for interacting with clients from other countries?



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