Cultural Awareness for Freelancers: A Skill To Work On

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To truly thrive as a freelancer, it’s crucial to continually work on your skills and boost your knowledge.

Plenty is said about courses and training, but an area that doesn’t see nearly so much discussion is cultural awareness. And with online freelancing being very much a global thing, it’s something that can really help you to stand out, and to build strong relationships with clients.

With that in mind, this article discusses cultural awareness for freelancers.

What You’ll Learn in this Article:

  • Some examples of how different business cultures can trip you up and cause embarrassment when dealing with clients.
  • Some strategies for working around time differences.
  • The importance of language.
  • How and why money is often central to cultural misunderstandings.

Why Listen To Me?

I’ve been freelancing for nearly 20 years, and much of that work has been international in nature.

In the past few years alone, I’ve dealt with clients in the UK, the US, Australia, Hungary, Israel, Georgia (the country, not the American state), Portugal, Estonia and New Zealand. And they’re just the countries I remember off hand.

I say that not to brag, but merely to illustrate how global a home working career can quickly become, and to demonstrate the importance of cultural awareness.

I’ve certainly got plenty of things wrong in that time, and caused myself stress and anxiety due to not fully understanding foreign business cultures and attitudes.

I hope that this article can help others learn from my mistakes!

Freelancing Across Borders

The online freelance world is truly international; Whether you’re writing, working as a virtual assistant or teaching over the internet, the likelihood is that you’ll do business with people from a variety of different countries.

It is one of the wonders of the modern, connected world that you can do all this from the comfort of your home office, but it also creates the potential for difficulties and misunderstandings.

If you’re just embarking on a freelance career, it’s important to understand that your next client may well NOT be located in the country you live in, and are familiar with.

It’s well known that people in different countries do things differently. Businesspeople who travel frequently often brush up on the culture and customs of the nations they’re about to do business in. However, it rarely occurs to online freelancers that they could benefit from doing the same thing.

Thankfully, there are lots of useful guides that break down business culture country by country. They cover everything from how different cultures typically conduct meetings, to what hours people tend to work.

Even as an independent freelancer, those guides are worth a look if you’re beginning to do business with a client in a country you’re not familiar with.

In the next section, we’ll take a look at some examples of how business cultures can differ between countries. We will look at the kind of misunderstandings that can occur, help you to avoid them, and show you how boosting your knowledge of international culture can help you to win and retain clients.

Understanding How Different Countries Do Business

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming everybody works in the same way. However, there are enough cultural differences, even between “similar” nations like the UK and the USA, to make it worth gaining a sense of the contrasts.

It’s hard to produce a bullet point list of differences in culture without making sweeping generalisations, nudging against stereotypes or risking offence – but I’ll give it a shot anyway!

Here are a few examples I’ve noticed:

Examples of Cultural Differences in the Workplace

  • In my experience, people from the UK are more reserved in business than people from many other countries. Brits are more likely to exchange some pleasantries before “cutting to the chase” compared those in the US.
  • Compared to those in Britain, both clients and freelancers in the US are usually faster to move onto the topic of rates and money.
  • Americans generally seem more comfortable with sharing their achievements and career histories in detail, even with those they don’t know well. I see this in emails I receive from new readers! Conversely, Brits seem more inclined to play down their achievements.

These differences simply relate to contrasts between the US and UK. If I bring cultural differences with other countries into the mix, it gets WAY more complicated!

For example:

  • It’s hugely variable how polite people are in different countries. There are two countries on my list above (which I won’t name individually!) where – to different degrees – pleases and thank yous aren’t really the norm. When you work with clients in those countries, you can expect a far more “straight down to business” attitude than Brits or Americans are typically used to.
  • Attitudes to business hierarchy vary hugely: In Scandinavia, for example, workers are used to limited hierarchy, flat management structures, and a general feeling of equality. Meanwhile, in Portugal, there’s still a very traditional respect for authority, and for those in roles considered more “senior.”
  • Different countries have very different attitudes to holidays and days off. Workers in European countries typically get far more paid holiday than those in the US, for example. Freelancers tend to uphold whatever tradition they’re used to, especially as they often take time off at the same time as family members in “normal” jobs.
  • Not every country works nine to five, Monday to Friday! Some countries, such as Spain, have a long afternoon siesta and finish much later in the evening. Other countries, such as Israel, work a Sunday to Thursday working week.

I could carry on providing more examples all day long, but I hope what’s above is enough to prove my point – especially when you think of the misunderstandings that can and do occur.

Potential Misunderstandings

Taking into account only the cultural differences discussed above (and there are plenty more), here are just a few examples of misunderstandings that could arise (please remember that I’m making some generalisations here, so don’t assume I’m saying these are hard and fast rules!):

1. American freelancers can potentially be seen by British clients as being pushy or brash when in the early stages of negotiations. Meanwhile, British freelancers can be held back by their own reserve, because they’re often not doing enough to draw attention to their skills and experience.

2. Clients in some countries can risk offending freelancers from other places, with manners that would be seen as completely normal by local workers. (I’ve personally experienced this a few times when I’ve been taken aback by clients from other countries being brusque and seemingly harsh. They’ve usually turned out to be lovely people. They’re simply demonstrating these cultural differences in communication!)

3. A freelancer in the US could irritate a client in Israel by hounding them with communication on a Friday and ignoring their emails on a Sunday.

4. A contractor in Europe could surprise an American client by announcing they plan “to take most of August off.”

These examples alone serve to demonstrate why learning a bit about the business culture of the countries you are dealing with can smooth communications and make you a better freelancer.

Time Differences

Dealing with time differences is an everyday thing for most established freelancers. It’s not only flash, corporate offices that need clocks showing the time in London, New York and Tokyo – it can prove useful for emerging freelancers too.

Clocks showing the time in different countries

Personally, my main “time challenge” has been getting used to the time difference between the USA (where most of my readers and some of my clients are), and the UK (where I’m located). I often have to consider what time it is ET (-5 hours) and PT (-8 hours) several times throughout the course of a day.

These time differences impact my workflow too: My mornings are often quiet because many people of the people I deal with are asleep. I also tend to receive lots of emails throughout the night.

Here in the UK, Australia and New Zealand present the most awkward time differences. Not only is it a large difference, but these countries are many hours ahead. This can mean that a deadline for an Australian client can loom faster than you would expect – and, yes, I’ve fallen foul of this in the past.

It also means that Zoom calls have to take place either very early or very late.

Unsurprisingly, clients usually consider most of the onus of dealing with time differences to be on their freelancers, and not on them. It’s therefore wise to get your head around what time zone each client is in, and work out in advance the best times to contact them.

Language Barriers

English is often described as the “global language of business.” But not all English is the same.

There are considerable differences between US English and UK English. The latter being what us Brits refer to as “actual English!” (Just in case any cultural differences are coming into play here, I will emphasise that I’m demonstrating a stereotypical British use of irony and sarcasm by saying that!) 

Here in England we have bins instead of trash cans, and pavements instead of sidewalks. Fanny means something very different here(!) and a “fag” is a cigarette. We also spell words like “colour” and “labour” correctly 😉

This difference between US and UK English can create more problems than you might expect. If you’re planning to be a writer, you will soon have to learn to quickly switch between US and UK in order to meet your clients’ requirements. I can do this easily now, but it was a skill I had to learn.

And it’s also not at all uncommon for people who have learned to speak English as a second language to struggle to understand British and Australian accents. Often, a lot of their language learning comes from American movies and TV shows. Similarly, I have a reasonable understanding of European Portuguese, having lived in Portugal, but can barely understand somebody speaking Brazilian Portuguese.

Poor English – And English as a Second Language

One thing that I see a tremendous amount of every single day is poor English. It’s particularly depressing when it comes from people who have English as their native language (especially when they’re emailing me asking about writing for a living).

Girl reading an English dictionary

I also receive lots of emails from people for whom English is a second language. I have tremendous respect for these people, as Brits are notoriously bad language learners.

Although I can speak some French and Portuguese, it’s only at a basic level, and nowhere near as good as the English I read and hear every day from people all over the world.

However, I have to be honest and say that nine times out of ten I can spot non-native English a mile off. There are certain quirks that usually come through. This is why clients seeking writers are often very specific that they want native speakers only.

The main thing I’d recommend – for ANYONE who’s not 100% sure of their linguistic abilities – is to make use of the software out there. 

Word processors have great spell check and grammar check capabilities, but it certainly seems that many people fail to make use of them. Even better is Grammarly (review here). There’s a free version available, and it catches lots of mistakes that would otherwise slip through the net. (Many clients also expect their freelancers to use something like Grammarly routinely, so becoming familiar with it is a skill in itself).

Language issues and cultural differences go hand-in-hand. If you want to come across as a native English speaker, make sure you use the right tools to ensure you do; If you’re dealing with a client in the US, use US English and don’t stubbornly stick to the British quirks.

Being mindful of these differences marks the difference between good freelancers and great freelancers.

Money Matters

There are no cultural differences quite so large as those related to money.

First, consider the fact that the median annual household income in the USA is $43,585. In India, it’s $3,168.

Next, consider the fact that on platforms like Upwork, you have freelance candidates from both countries going for the same writing and virtual assistant jobs, and clients having to decide who to choose.

This isn’t the place to embark on a discussion about fairness and equality, much as I’d like to. The cost of living is often lower where incomes are lower, for one thing. But it’s rarely precisely proportional. The world isn’t a fair place.

However, there is one thing that never fails to irritate me, and that’s when western freelancers whine that “they can’t get any work because people in “poor countries” are willing to do it for next to nothing.”

This is nonsense.

For starters, there are way more opportunities out there for people in the US and the UK. Sites like FlexJobs and Virtual Vocations list thousands of remote jobs that are available – almost exclusively – to people in those places.

Furthermore, many clients seeking freelancers insist on US or UK applicants, in addition to having a requirement for native English language skills.

When I review opportunities for HomeWorkingClub, I often make a point of discussing “accessibility.” This is in recognition of the fact that many things are – sadly – off limits to people in certain countries.

And there’s another factor you might not even be aware of if you’re reading this in Britain or America:

Many of the countries where people could theoretically do freelance work for much less money don’t have well-established payment infrastructures. It saddens me when I receive emails from people from Kenya or Nigeria, often with advanced degrees and lots to offer, who struggle simply to establish a way to get paid. This is due to having little or no access to things many take for granted, such as access to PayPal or Stripe.

It’s therefore essential to see the big picture and gain an understanding of the importance of cultural awareness in business, especially on the financial side.

If, like me, it bugs you when you lose a chunk of money on overseas job, thanks to payment processing fees and bad exchange rates, spare a thought for those who have issues just working out a way to access the money they earn.

How To Develop Cultural Awareness when Freelancing

The most important thing to take away from this article is that building up your global cultural awareness is something well worth doing.

When you start to work for a new client in a new country, make the effort to learn a bit about that country, and the way people do things there.

No client will mind if you don’t know everything there is to know about the place they call home. However, they might be impressed if you do subtle things to demonstrate that you’re culturally “on the ball,” such as:

  • Proposing a sensible cross-timezones time for you to reliably catch each other on online chat;
  • Querying which days they usually work;
  • Asking whether they want their content in US English or real English(!)

Freelancing is never going to become “less global.” Despite what people with certain political leanings might wish for, you can’t rewind existence of the internet and take away peoples’ ability to work across borders.

Online globalisation works for freelancers, and creates opportunities that didn’t exist even ten years ago.

So learn about it – boost your cultural awareness – and make the most of the fact that you have potential clients in every corner of the world.

Check out Cultural Intelligence: Building People Skills for the 21st Century.

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