International companies have employees all over the world. Working with multicultural teams offers a lot of advantages, like deep knowledge of different product markets, culturally sensitive decisions and strategies, and 24-hour work rotations. However, besides these advantages, there are also problems that come with working in a multicultural team and company. In this blogpost, we’ll discuss what the most common cultural differences are in meetings, and how you can cope with culture-based challenges.

What are some cultural differences

People are different and meetings with multicultural employees and/or clients require a unique approach. The way you hold a meeting in Japan is different than in Brazil. This makes having cross-cultural meetings difficult but could also give you a broader perspective of the company or situation. To anticipate and respect other cultures that might enter the meeting, be prepared and do your homework.

Are you working with people from different cultures? Below you will find the most common differences from different parts in the world.

Cultural differences in meeting table 2We can see that there are different ways of starting a meeting, holding a meeting, communicating with one another, and having different opinions about what is polite. We’ll discuss this further in the next paragraphs.

Cultural differences in how time is viewed

Time is the same everywhere, but it’s not viewed the same around the world. Imagine having a meeting with someone and the person is multitasking between phone calls, and people are walking in and out of the room. Would you think this is ‘a waste of time’? Overall there are two ways to look at situations like this: the monochronic way and the polychronic way.

Monochronic: In this type of culture people are very aware of time. There are many expressions in English-speaking countries and Northern European countries like ‘wasting time’ or ‘lose time’. There is a grand awareness of the concept of time and turning up late for an appointment or meeting is seen as rude and disrespectful. Everyone’s time is considered valuable and should be spent usefully. People in a monochronic culture focus on one thing at the time, plan carefully, and are concerned with completing tasks in a systematic way. That’s why meetings in this culture usually stick to the agenda, start on time and don’t allow interruptions during the meeting. Going ‘off track’ is not something that is considered positive and should be avoided. Efficiency is an important aspect that is valued throughout companies.

The Japanese take this especially seriously. Sticking to the agenda and to the set time of a meeting is very important. If a meeting goes over time, that reflects on the people in the meeting. They seem inefficient and unclear in communication or they didn’t prepare well enough to end the meeting on time because of that. Therefore it is utterly important to end the meeting within the allocated time to not ‘lose face’ and save your dignity.

Polychronic: the polychronic culture in, for example, Latin America, Southern Europe, and the Middle East, has a very different take on time. They multitask and believe that time cannot be controlled and is flexible. A company where this culture is dominant won’t necessarily stick to the agenda of the meeting. Instead, meeting attendees are do multiple tasks during the meeting, walk out of the meeting, or take calls.

Cultural differences in communication

In the Netherlands, the culture is down to earth and direct. Communication should be clear and it’s not about reading between the lines, which would be inefficient. Most Northern European countries are like this just like some other English-speaking countries like Australia and the U.S.

The way people in the Netherlands communicate says a lot about a culture. Because monochronic cultures are trying to be as efficient as possible, too much chit-chat before a meeting and indirect communication are not acceptable. Direct communication is honest and straightforward, you can say exactly what you mean. When you think something is not right or should be slightly different, people will say this during the meeting. On the other hand, in many countries in the world where a polychronic culture rules communication is careful and related to saving face. They want to protect another’s esteem and honor.

If you’d like a more in-depth research on specific countries, check out this website.

Cultural differences in meeting

Tips on how to manage

Of course, you don’t want to clash during meetings with clients or colleagues. So how can you make sure your multicultural meetings run smoothly?

The Harvard Business Review writes about this subject. They identify four problem categories that can create barriers to a team’s success:

  1. Direct versus indirect communication (like we saw in the infographic)
  2. Trouble with accents and levels of fluency
  3. Different ways of looking at hierarchy and authority
  4. Conflicting norms for decision making

Make sure, as the facilitator, that you know the root of the problem so you can find an appropriate solution.


Be specific before the meeting starts about what you expect from people in the meeting. You want to be clear about how you will run the meeting and establish the ‘norms’ at the beginning.

“I’ve been to meetings where the hierarchy was very different than what I was used to. Luckily we were quickly used to each other at that moment so that was good. But I can imagine that when I would have a meeting in Japan, our very different cultures would really clash in a way. My advice would be to read about cultural differences before entering the meeting. You’ll know what to expect or how to behave, and you would better understand other people’s behavior.” Arjen Halma – CPO at GAIKU

Be clear

Don’t leave anything to the imagination. People always have a different view on things if they are not clear. Confusion is even more likely when there is a cultural difference. When you say, for example, the meeting starts ‘on time’, people can still interpret this as more or less within ten minutes from the start. Be clear about what you mean and don’t assume that people understand immediately. This way everyone has the same idea and it helps to avoid irritation. As a facilitator, it’s important to involve every member and at the same time respect everyone’s cultural assumptions.

Taking all this into consideration, our last advice would be to do your homework before meeting with any culture. This way everyone will feel respected and you can truly enjoy a diverse team. 


Want to learn more? Check out How to handle different personalities in your meeting.

Download our free e-book about meetings!

Do you want to learn more about meetings and how you can improve them to save time?

We’ve created an e-book ‘A brief introduction to meetings’. Chapters include meeting agenda, meeting types, meeting rhythms, what are meeting minutes, giving and receiving feedback, meeting room environment, group decision making methods, and much more.

CLICK HERE to go to the download page.