The Difference Between Gaffes and Gaps


When it comes to doing business across cultures, there is a lot of room for uncomfortable gaffes. Almost everyone – including the most culturally competent individuals – has made a gaffe in front of culturally diverse colleagues or partners. Examples could be someone offering their business card to a Chinese counterpart with only one hand, letting the soles of their feet show when sitting with an Arab businessperson, or referring to a new Indian associate by their first name, to name a few.

However embarrassing or off-putting cultural gaffes are, they usually are not serious enough to derail a business relationship. After all, people across the world tend to be forgiving and understand that one person cannot fully grasp a culture’s social etiquette ahead of traveling for work.  

Cultural gaps, on the other hand, actually do have the power to derail business relationships and impede effective work. Cultural gaps come in the form of misalignment when communicating meaning, interpreting what is said and not said, and relating to others in their own cultural context.

Examples of cultural gaps could be making strong eye contact with a counterpart from an indirect culture during discussions, addressing lower-ranking employees instead of the team leader in a hierarchical culture, or focusing only on future returns during a sales pitch in a past-oriented culture. Unlike gaffes, cultural gaps mean the difference between connecting successfully with colleagues and partners, and failing to reach them altogether. Cultural gaps can be extensive, difficult to notice and highly damaging to business relationships.

But there are steps people can take to overcome them. The primary one is to engage in cultural due diligence, that is, learning not just about the etiquette of a new culture, but also the cultural norms around communicating meaning, interpreting information and relating to others. With the Cultural Navigator, individuals can research the cultural norms of dozens of countries to learn about the local work-style preferences as well as management, leadership and negotiating practices, to name a few. This helps individuals not only learn the etiquette of other cultures to avoid gaffes, but to also spot potentially problematic gaps and work on strategies to overcome them before they damage a business relationship.