There are lots of freelancing skills that help you progress, win more clients and make more money. But one I don’t see discussed very much is mastering the art of cultural awareness.
Much of the 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’s one of the wonders of the modern world that you can do this from the comfort of your home office, but it also creates the potential for difficulties and misunderstandings.
This year 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. 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.
It’s well known that people in different countries do things differently. In the years before the internet eliminated travel as a prerequisite for working across borders, businesspeople would learn about corporate culture in new countries before visiting them. This is often still the case when firms branch out, and I’d particularly recommend checking out the trade and export guides produced by the UK government, as they are a great primer on the key points of how different nations conduct their business.
Even as a single 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. But first, this article presents a range of tips on cultural awareness for freelancing. It will introduce you to 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 win and retain clients.
What you’ll learn in this article:
- Some examples of how different business cultures can trip you up when dealing with clients.
- Some strategies for working around time differences.
- The importance of language.
- How and why money is key to cultural misunderstandings.
Let’s get started.
Understanding how different countries do business
It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming everybody works in the same way, but 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 bullet point 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
- People from the UK are more reserved in business and more likely to exchange some pleasantries before “cutting to the chase” compared those in the US (at least in my experience!)
- 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 from 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!
- 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, and there’s 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, but I hope what’s above is enough to prove my point – especially when you think of the misunderstandings that can and do occur.
Taking into account only the cultural differences discussed above, here are just a few examples of misunderstandings that could arise:
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 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 demonstrating mere 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 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.
Dealing with time differences is an everyday thing for most established freelancers.
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). For me, the two most direct effects of this are that my mornings are quiet because many people are asleep, and that I get an awful lot of emails in the evening and through the night!
Here in the UK, Australia presents a particularly awkward time difference. Not only is it a large one, but Australia is ahead. Although I’m currently typing this article before lunchtime, if I had a deadline to finish it by close of business with a company in Australia, it would already be four hours late. I’m embarrassed to say I did nearly fall foul of that one years ago!
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 your best times of catching them.
English is described as the “global language of business,” but not all English is the same.
There are even 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 in pointing that out!) 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 😉
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 becoming writers – and, yes, this happens a lot).
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 see 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, which we’ve reviewed here. There’s a free version available, which I have activated permanently, and it catches lots of mistakes that would otherwise slip through the net.
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.
There are no cultural differences quite so large as those related to money.
Just consider the fact that the average annual income in the USA is $56,850. In India, it’s $1,670. Then 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, and 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. 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 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.
But there’s another factor you might not even be aware of if you’re reading this in England 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 just to establish a way to get paid. This is due to having 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 a job for an overseas client thanks to payment processing fees and bad exchange rates, spare a thought for those who have issues simply 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 all of this is that building up your global cultural awareness is something well worth doing. When you start to work for a client in a new country for the first time, make the effort to learn a bit about that country, and the way people do things there.
No client’s going to mind if you don’t know everything there is to know about the place they call home. However, they may well be impressed if you propose the best time for you to both reliably catch each other on online chat, or query whether or not they usually work on a Friday, or whether they want their content in US English or Real English(!)
Freelancing is never going to “go less global.” Despite what people of certain political leanings might wish for, you can’t rewind the internet and take away peoples’ ability to work across borders. Online globalisation works for freelancers, and creates opportunities that didn’t exist – even just 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.
Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com – Ben has worked freelance for nearly 20 years. As well as being a freelance writer and blogger, he is also a technical consultant with Microsoft and Apple certifications. He loves supporting new home workers but is prone to outbursts of bluntness and realism.