Every culture has its ceremonies. In fact, ceremonies could almost be considered to be a defining element of a culture. One of the consequences of globalisation, a process itself largely driven by business, is growing uniformity. Increasingly we all shop at the same global market place either via online giants like Amazon, or through the ubiquitous high street franchises that dominate our major cities. Likewise, business culture, at least in the west has become more homogenous. The three hour lunches that used to accompany Spanish business deals, for example, are sadly becoming less and less common!

However, one of the most fascinating aspects of cultural differences are that they are often manifested in ostensibly minor ways, in habits and routines that are automatically carried out by the natives, but easily missed by ex-patriate workers. And precisely because they are so engrained, ignoring them can create all kinds of minor friction. Such is the case with the classic office ceremonies related to birthdays and to leaving:

Birthdays ceremonies

Birthdays in Spain can be problematic! In stark contrast to the Anglo- Saxon tradition whereby everybody treats the person actually having the birthday, in Spain it works the other way round. Instead of all your friends buying you drinks all night, you are expected to buy drinks for all your friends. A system which actually causes the more frugal Spaniards to avoid going out on their birthday at all costs! However, in the office context there’s no escape. If it’s your birthday (HR will always know that it is!) then you will be expected to treat your colleagues.

Spain being Spain, this boils down to food. Typically you should bring something for your immediate co-workers. There is no clear rule as to who and who not to include. So, the best thing to do is to bring a tray of something, and spread the word. Usually this would be mid- morning around 11 am, and involve pastries, sausage rolls, mini croissants etc. If you fancy yourself in the kitchen and can actually bake a cake then you will definitely get added kudos.

Likewise if you can bring something from your own culture. Cakes, sweets and biscuits are one of the few areas where the traditionally gastronomically challenged Brits can excel, but if you are from an Arab country, then those unbeatable pastries are going to make you king of the office for the day! The key is to be seen to be making an effort, but it’s not a huge deal. It’s a gesture, and like all ceremonies, it’s all about the process itself.

Leaving ceremonies

Leaving ceremonies also have their quirks. There is no cut and dry rule here. A lot depends on the context of leaving, the size of the company, how long the person has been employed, and of course the circumstances of the departure. However, in most cases the person leaving might expect a small gift, a card signed by their co-workers, and as often as not some early evening drinks that may or may not turn into late night drinks as well!

Usually the leaver’s line manager would say a few words, and then hugs and handshakes and kisses on both cheeks ensue. This is a bit of a minefield in itself… traditionally women give and receive two kisses, and men either shake hands or embrace. However, the world is changing and not all women want to be kissed by their co-workers anymore! If in doubt follow the lead of your Spanish colleagues, or just shake hands. Always better to be a little bit too informal, than a little bit too formal!

So, there we have it, birthdays and leaving are simple office ceremonies centred around recognition, food and drink, and appreciation of and from your peers. Perhaps a minor aspect of the business world but one which makes all the difference to the process of inclusivity. And who doesn’t want a nice piece of cake at 11:30, or an affectionate farewell and a few sentimental beers?