Intercultural business communication
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The basic forms of communication
As David Glass is well aware, effective
communicators have many tools at their disposal when they want to get across a
message. Whether writing or speaking, they know how to put together the words
that will convey their meaning. They reinforce their words with gestures and
actions. They look you in the eye, listen to what you have to say, and think
about your feelings and needs. At the same time, they study your reactions,
picking up the nuances of your response by watching your face and body,
listening to your tone of voice, and evaluating your words. They absorb
information just as efficiently as they transmit it, relying on both non-verbal
and verbal cues.
The most basic form of communication is non-verbal.
Anthropologists theorize that long before human beings used words to talk
things over, our ancestors communicated with one another by using their bodies.
They gritted their teeth to show anger; they smiled and touched one another to
indicate affection. Although we have come a long way since those primitive
times, we still use non-verbal cues to express superiority, dependence,
dislike, respect, love, and other feelings.
Non-verbal communication differs from
verbal communication in fundamental ways. For one thing, it is less
structured, which makes it more difficult to study. A person cannot pick up a
book on non-verbal language and master the vocabulary of gestures, expressions,
and inflections that are common in our culture. We don't really know how people
learn non-verbal behaviour. No one teaches a baby to cry or smile, yet these
forms of self-expression are almost universal. Other types of non-verbal
communication, such as the meaning of colors and certain gestures, vary from
culture to culture.
Non-verbal communication also differs from
verbal communication in terms of intent and spontaneity. We generally plan our
words. When we say "please open the door," we have a conscious
purpose. We think about the message, if only for a moment. But when we
communicate non-verbally, we sometimes do so unconsciously. We don't mean to
raise an eyebrow or blush. Those actions come naturally. Without our consent,
our emotions are written all over our faces.
Why non-verbal communication is important
Although non-verbal communication is often
unplanned, it has more impact than verbal communication. Non-verbal cues are
especially important in conveying feelings; accounting for 93 percent of the
emotional meaning that is exchanged in any interaction.
One advantage of non-verbal communication
is its reliability. Most people can deceive us much more easily with their
words than they can with their bodies. Words are relatively easy to control;
body language, facial expressions, and vocal characteristics are not. By paying
attention to these non-verbal cues, we can detect deception or affirm a
speaker's honesty. Not surprisingly, we have more faith in non-verbal cues than
we do in verbal messages. If a person says one thing but transmits a
conflicting message non-verbally, we almost invariably believe the non-verbal
signal. To a great degree, then, an individual's credibility as a communicator
depends on non-verbal messages.
Non-verbal communication is important for
another reason as well: It can be efficient from both the sender's and the
receiver's standpoint. You can transmit a non-verbal message without even
thinking about it, and your audience can register the meaning unconsciously.
By the same token, when you have a conscious purpose, you can often achieve it
more economically with a gesture than you can with words. A wave of the hand, a
pat on the back, a wink—all are streamlined expressions of thought.
The functions of non-verbal communication
Although non-verbal communication can stand
alone, it frequently works with speech. Our words carry part of the message,
and non-verbal signals carry the rest. Together, the two modes of expression
make a powerful team, augmenting,
reinforcing, and clarifying each other.
Experts in non-verbal communication suggest
that it have six specific functions:
• To provide information, either
consciously or unconsciously
• To regulate the flow of conversation
• To express emotion
• To qualify, complement, contradict, or
expand verbal messages
• To control or influence others
• To facilitate
specific tasks, such as teaching a person to swing a golf club.
Non-verbal communication plays a role in
business too. For one thing, it helps establish credibility and leadership
potential. If you can learn to manage the impression you create with your body
language, facial characteristics, voice, and appearance, you can do a great
deal to communicate that you are competent, trustworthy, and dynamic. For
example, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton has developed a homespun style that puts
people at ease, thereby helping them to be more receptive, perhaps even more
Furthermore, if you can learn to read other
people's non-verbal messages, you will be able to interpret their underlying
attitudes and intentions more accurately. When dealing with co-workers,
customers, and clients, watch carefully for small signs that reveal how the
conversation is going. If you aren't having the effect you want, check your
words; then, if your words are all right, try to be aware of the non-verbal
meanings you are transmitting. At the same time, stay tuned to the non-verbal
signals that the other person is sending.
Although you can express many things
non-verbally, there are limits to what you can communicate without the help of
language. If you want to discuss past events, ideas, or abstractions, you need
words—symbols that stand for thoughts — arranged in meaningful patterns. In the
English language, we have a 750,000, although most of us recognize only about
20,000 of them. To create a thought with these words, we arrange them according
to the rules of grammar, putting the various parts of speech in the proper
We then transmit the message in spoken or
written form, hoping that someone will hear or read what we have to say. Figure
1.1 shows how much time business people devote to the various types of verbal
communication. They use speaking and writing to send messages; they use
listening and reading to receive them.
Speaking and writing
When it comes to sending business messages,
speaking is more common than writing. Giving instructions, conducting
interviews, working in small groups, attending meetings, and making speeches
are all important activities. Even though writing may be less common, it is
important too. When you want to send a complex message of lasting significance,
you will probably want to put it in writing.
Listening and reading
It's important to remember that effective
communication is a two-way street. People in business spend more time obtaining
information than transmitting it, so to do their jobs effectively, they need
good listening and reading skills. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good
listeners. Immediately after hearing a ten-minute speech, we typically remember
only half of what was said. A few days later, we've forgotten three-quarters of
the message. To some extent, our listening problems stem from our education, or lack of it. We spend years learning
to express our ideas, but few of us ever take a course in listening.
FIGURE 1.1 Forms of Business Communication
Similarly, our reading skills often leave a good deal to be
desired. Recent studies indicate that approximately 38 percent of the adults in
the United States have
trouble reading the help-wanted ads in the
newspaper, 14 percent cannot fill out a check properly, 26 percent can't figure
out the deductions listed on their paycheques, and 20 percent are functionally
illiterate. Even those who do read may not know how to read effectively. They
have trouble extracting the important points from a document, so they cannot
make the most of the information presented.
College student are probably better at
listening and reading than are many other people, partly because they get so
much practice. On the basis of our own experience, no doubt realise that our listening
and reading efficiency varies tremendously, depending on how we approach the
task. Obtaining and remembering information takes a special effort.
Although listening and reading obviously
differ, both require a similar approach. The first step is to register the
information, which means that you must tune out distractions and focus your
attention. You must then interpret and evaluate the information, respond in
some fashion, and file away the data for future reference.
The most important part of this process is
interpretation and evaluation, which is no easy matter. While absorbing the
material, we must decide what is important and what isn't. One approach is to
look for the main ideas and the most important supporting details, rather than
trying to remember everything we read or hear. If we can discern the structure of the material, we can
also understand the relationships among the ideas.
Basics of intercultural business communication
As Bill Davila knows, the first step in
learning to communicate with people from other cultures is to become aware of
what culture means. Our awareness of intercultural differences is both useful
and necessary in today's world of business.
Person may not realise it, but he belongs
to several cultures. The most obvious is the culture he shares with all other
people who live in the same country. But this person also belongs to other
cultural groups, such as an ethnic group, a religious group, a fraternity or
sorority, or perhaps a profession that has its own special language and
So what exactly is culture? It is useful to
define culture as a system of shared symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values,
expectations, and norms for behaviour. Thus all members of a culture have, and
tend to act on, similar assumptions about how people should think, behave, and
Distinct groups that exist within a major
culture are more properly referred to as subcultures. Among groups that might
be considered subcultures are Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles, Mormons in
Salt Lake City, and longshoremen in Montreal. Subcultures without geographic
boundaries can be found as well, such as wrestling fans, Russian immigrants,
and Harvard M.B.A.s .
Cultures and subcultures vary in several
ways that affect intercultural communication:
• Stability. Conditions in the culture may
be stable or may be changing slowly or rapidly.
• Complexity. Cultures vary in the
accessibility of information. In North America information is contained in explicit codes, including words, whereas in Japan a great deal of information is conveyed implicitly, through body language, physical
context, and the like.
• Composition. Some cultures are made up of
many diverse and disparate subcultures; others tend to be more homogeneous.
• Acceptance. Cultures vary in their
attitudes toward outsiders. Some are openly hostile or maintain a detached aloofness. Others are friendly and
co-operative toward strangers.
As you can see, cultures vary widely. It's
no wonder that most of us need special training before we can become
comfortable with a culture other than our own.
Developing intercultural communication skills
When faced with the need (or desire) to
learn about another culture, we have two main approaches to choose from. The
first is to learn as much as possible—the language, cultural background and
history, social rules, and so on—about the specific culture that you expect to
deal with. The other is to develop general skills that will help to adapt in
The first approach, in-depth knowledge of a
particular culture, certainly works. But there are two drawbacks. One is that
you will never be able to understand another culture completely. No matter how
much you study German culture, for example, you will never be a German or
share the experiences of having grown up in Germany. Even if we could
understand the culture completely, Germans might resent
our assumption that we know everything there is to know about them. The other
drawback to immersing yourself in a specific culture is the trap of
overgeneralization, looking at people from a culture not as individuals with
their own unique characteristics, but as instances of Germans or Japanese or
black Americans. The trick is to learn useful general information but to be
open to variations and individual differences.
The second approach to cultural learning,
general development of intercultural skills, is especially useful if we
interact with people from a variety of cultures or subcultures. Among the
skills you need to learn are the following:
• Taking responsibility for communication.
Don't assume that it is the other person's job to communicate with you.
• Withholding judgment. Learn to listen to
the whole story and to accept differences in others.
• Showing respect. Learn the ways in which
respect is communicated— through gestures, eye contact, and so on — in various
• Empathizing. Try to put yourself in the
other person's shoes. Listen carefully to what the other person is trying to
communicate; imagine the person's feelings and point of view.
• Tolerating ambiguity.
Learn to control your frustration when placed in an unfamiliar or confusing
• Looking beyond the superficial. Don't be
distracted by such things as dress, appearance, or environmental discomforts.
• Being patient and persistent. If you want
to accomplish a task, don't give up easily.
• Recognizing your own cultural biases. Learn to identify when your assumptions
are different from the other person's.
• Being flexible. Be prepared to change
your habits, preferences, and attitudes.
• Emphasizing common ground. Look for
similarities to work from.
• Sending clear messages. Make your verbal
and non-verbal messages consistent.
• Taking risks. Try things that will help
you gain a better understanding of the other person or culture.
• Increasing your cultural sensitivity.
Learn about variations in customs and practices so that you will be more aware
of potential areas for miscommunication or misunderstanding.
• Dealing with the individual. Avoid
stereotyping and overgeneralization.
Difficulties of intercultural business communication
The more differences there are between the
people who are communicating, the more difficult it is to communicate
effectively. The major problems in inter-cultural business communication are
language barriers, cultural differences, and ethnocentric reactions.
If we're doing business in London, we
obviously won't have much of a language problem. We may encounter a few
unusual terms or accents in the 29 countries in which English is an official
language, but our problems will be relatively minor. Language barriers will
also be relatively minor when we are dealing with people who use English as a
second language (and some 650 million people fall into this category). Some of
these millions are extremely fluent; others have only an elementary command of
English. Although you may miss a few subtleties in dealing with those who are
less fluent in English, we’ll still be able to communicate. The pitfall to watch for is assuming that the
other person understands everything we say, even slang, local idioms, and
accents. One group of English-speaking Japanese who moved to the United States
as employees of Toyota had to enroll in a special course to learn that
"Jeat yet?" means "Did you eat yet?" and that
"Cannahepya?" means "Can I help you?"
The real problem with language arises when
we are dealing with people who speak virtually no English. In situations like
this, we have very few options: We can learn their language, we can use an
intermediary or a translator, or we can teach them our language. Becoming
fluent in a new language (which we must do to conduct business in that
language) is time consuming. The U.S. State Department, for example, gives its
Foreign Service officers a six-month language training program and expects them
to continue their language education at their foreign posts. Even the Berlitz
method, which is famous for the speed of its results, requires a month of
intensive effort — 13 hours a day, 5 days a week. It is estimated that minimum
proficiency in another language requires at least 240 hours of study over 8
weeks; more complex languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, require more than
480 hours. Language courses can be quite expensive as well. Unless we are
planning to spend several years abroad or to make frequent trips over an
extended period, learning another language may take more time, effort, and
money than we're able to spend.
A more practical approach may be to use an
intermediary or a translator. For example, if our company has a foreign
subsidiary, we can delegate the communication job to local nationals who are
bilingual. Or we can hire bilingual advertising consultants, distributors,
lobbyists, lawyers, translators, and other professionals to help us. Even
though Vons operates within the United States, management hires bilingual
personnel to help its Hispanic customers feel more comfortable.
The option of teaching other people to
speak our language doesn't appear to be very practical at first glance;
however, many multinational companies do, in fact, have language training
programs for their foreign employees. Tenneco, for example, instituted an
English-language training program for its Spanish-speaking employees in a New
Jersey plant. The classes concentrated on practical English for use on the
job. According to the company, these classes were a success: Accidents and
grievances declined, and productivity improved.
In general, the magnitude of the language barrier depends on whether you are
writing or speaking. Written communication is generally easier to handle.
Barriers to written communication
One survey of 100 companies engaged in
international business revealed that between 95 and 99 percent of their
business letters to other countries are written in English. Moreover, 59
percent of the respondents reported that the foreign letters they receive are
usually written in English, although they also receive letters written in
Spanish and French. Other languages are rare in international business
Because many international business letters
are written in English, North American firms do not always have to worry about
translating their correspondence. However, even when both parties write in
English, minor interpretation problems do exist because of different usage of
technical terms. These problems do not usually pose a major barrier to
communication, especially if correspondence between the two parties continues
and each gradually learns the terminology of the other.
More significant problems arise in other
forms of written communication that require translation. Advertisements, for
example, are almost always translated into the language of the country in which
the products are being sold. Documents such as warranties, repair and maintenance
manuals, and product labels also require translation. In addition, some
multinational companies must translate policy and procedure manuals and
benefit plans for use in overseas offices. Reports from foreign subsidiaries to
the home office may also be written in one language and then translated into
Sometimes the translations aren't very
good. For example, the well-known slogan "Come alive with Pepsi" was
translated literally for Asian markets as "Pepsi brings your ancestors
back from the grave," with unfortunate results. Part of the message is
almost inevitably lost during any translation process, sometimes with major
Barriers to oral communication
Oral communication usually presents more
problems than written communication. If you have ever studied a foreign
language, you know from personal experience that it's easier to write in a
foreign language than to conduct a conversation. Even if the other person is
speaking English, you're likely to have a hard time understanding the
pronunciation if the person is not proficient in English. For example, many
foreigners notice no difference between the English sounds v and w, they say wery
for very. At the same time, many people from North America cannot pronounce
some of the sounds that are frequently used in other parts of the world.
In addition to pronouncing sounds
differently, people use their voices in different ways, a fact that often leads
to misunderstanding. The Russians, for example, speak in flat level tones in
their native tongue. When they speak English, they maintain this pattern, and
Westerners may assume that they are bored or rude. Middle Easterners tend to
speak more loudly than Westerners and may therefore mistakenly be considered
more emotional. On the other hand, the Japanese are soft-spoken, a
characteristic that implies politeness or humility to Westerners.
Idiomatic expressions are another source of
confusion. If you tell a foreigner that a certain product "doesn't cut
the mustard," chances are that you will fail to communicate. Even when the
words make sense, their meanings may differ according to the situation. For
example, suppose that you are dining with a German woman who speaks English
quite well. You inquire, "More bread?" She says, "Thank
you," so you pass the bread. She looks confused, then takes the
breadbasket and sets it down without taking any. In German, thank you (danke)
can also be used as a polite refusal. If the woman had wanted more bread, she
would have used the word please (bitte in German).
When speaking in English to those for whom
English is a second language, follow these simple guidelines:
• Try to eliminate "noise."
Pronounce words clearly, and stop at distinct punctuation points. Make one
point at a time.
• Look for feedback.
Be alert to glazed eyes or signs of confusion in your listener. Realise that
nods and smiles do not necessarily mean understanding. Don't be afraid to ask,
"Is that clear?" and be sure to check the listener's comprehension
through specific questions. Encourage the listener to ask questions.
• Rephrase your sentence when necessary. If
someone doesn't seem to understand what you have said, choose simpler words;
don't just repeat the sentence in a louder voice.
• Don't talk down to the other person.
Americans tend to overenunciate and to "blame" the listener for lack
of comprehension. It is preferable to use phrases such as "Am I going too
fast?" rather than "Is this too difficult for you?"
• Use objective, accurate language.
Americans tend to throw around adjectives such as fantastic and fabulous,
which foreigners consider unreal and overly dramatic. Calling something a
"disaster" will give rise to images of war and death; calling
someone an "idiot" or a "prince" may be taken literally.
• Let other people finish what they have to
say. If you interrupt, you may miss something important. And you'll show a lack
As we know, misunderstandings are
especially likely to occur when the people who are communicating have different
backgrounds. Party A encodes a message in one context, using assumptions
common to people in his or her culture; Party B decodes the message using a
different set of assumptions. The result is confusion and, often, hard
feelings. For example, take the case of the computer sales representative who
was calling on a client in China. Hoping to make a good impression, the
salesperson brought along a gift to break the ice, an expensive grandfather
clock. Unfortunately, the Chinese client was deeply offended because, in China,
giving clocks as gifts is considered bad luck for the recipient.
Such problems arise because of our
unconscious assumptions and non-verbal communication patterns. We ignore the
fact that people from other cultures differ from us in many ways: in their
religion and values, their ideas of status, their decision-making habits, their
attitude toward time, their use of space, their body language, and their
manners. We assume, wrongly, that other people are like us. At Vons,
management has spent a great deal of time learning about the cultural
preferences of the store's Hispanic customers.
Religion and values
Although North America is a melting pot of
people with different religions and values, the predominant influence in this
culture is the Puritan ethic: If you work hard and achieve success, you will
find favour in the eyes of God. They tend to assume that material comfort is a
sign of superiority, that the rich are a little bit better than the poor, that
people who work hard are better than those who don't. They believe that money
solves many problems. They assume that people from other cultures share their
view, that they dislike poverty and value hard work. In fact, many societies
condemn materialism and prize a carefree life-style.
As a culture, they are goal-oriented. They
want to get the work done in the most efficient manner, and they assume that
everyone else does too. They think they are improving things if they can figure
out a way for two people using modern methods to do the same work as four people
using the "old way." But in countries like India and Pakistan, where
unemployment is extremely high, creating jobs is more important than getting
the work done efficiently. Executives in these countries would rather employ
four workers than two.
Roles and status
Culture dictates the roles people play,
including who communicates with whom, what they communicate, and in what way.
In many countries, for example, women still do not play a very prominent role
in business. As a result, female executives from American firms may find
themselves sent off to eat in a separate room with the wives of Arab
businessmen, while the men all eat dinner together.
Concepts of status also differ, and as a
consequence, people establish their credibility in different ways. North
Americans, for example, send status signals that reflect materialistic values.
The big boss has the corner office on the top floor, deep carpets, an expensive
desk, and handsome accessories. The most successful companies are located in
the most prestigious buildings. In other countries, status is communicated in
other ways. For example, the highest-ranking executives in France sit in the
middle of an open area, surrounded by lower-level employees. In the Middle
East, fine possessions are reserved for the home, and business is conducted in
cramped and modest quarters. An American executive who assumes that these
office arrangements indicate a lack of status is making a big mistake.
In North America, they try to reach decisions
as quickly and efficiently as possible. The top people focus on reaching
agreement on the main points and leave the details to be worked out later by
others. In Greece, this approach would backfire. A Greek executive assumes that
anyone who ignores the details is being evasive and untrustworthy. Spending
time on every little point is considered a mark of good faith. Similarly,
Latin Americans prefer to make their deals slowly, after a lengthy period of
discussion. They resist an authoritarian "Here's the deal, take it or
leave it" approach, preferring the more sociable method of an extended
Cultures also differ in terms of who makes
the decisions. In american culture, many organisations are dominated by a
single figure who says yes or no to every deal. It is the same in Pakistan,
where you can get a decision quickly if you reach the highest-ranking
executive. In other cultures, notably China and Japan, decision making is a
shared responsibility. No individual has the authority to commit the
organisation without first consulting others. In Japan, for example, the
negotiating team arrives at a consensus through an elaborate, time-consuming
process (agreement must be complete — there is no majority rule). If the
process is not laborious enough, the Japanese feel uncomfortable.
Concepts of time
Differing perceptions of time are another
factor that can lead to misunderstandings. An executive from North America or
Germany attaches one meaning to time; an executive from Latin America,
Ethiopia, or Japan attaches another. Let's say that a salesperson from Chicago
calls on a client in Mexico City. After spending 30 minutes in the outer
office, the person from Chicago feels angry and insulted, assuming, "This
client must attach a very low priority to my visit to keep me waiting half an
hour." In fact, the Mexican client does not mean to imply anything at all
by this delay. To the Mexican, a wait of 30 minutes is a matter of course.
Or let's say that a New Yorker is trying to
negotiate a deal in Ethiopia. This is an important deal, and the New Yorker
assumes that the Ethiopians will give the matter top priority and reach a
decision quickly. Not so. In Ethiopia, important deals take a long, long time.
After all, if a deal is important, it should be given much careful thought,
The Japanese, knowing that North Americans
are impatient, use time to their advantage when negotiating with us. One of
them expressed it this way:
"You Americans have one terrible
weakness. If we make you wait long enough, you will agree to anything."
Concepts of personal space
The classic story of a conversation between
a North American and a Latin American is that the interaction may begin at one
end of a hallway but end up at the other, with neither party aware of having
moved. During the interaction, the Latin American instinctively moves closer
to the North American, who in turn instinctively steps back, resulting in an
intercultural dance across the floor. Like time, space means different things
in different cultures. North Americans stand about five feet apart when
conducting a business conversation. To an Arab or a Latin American, this
distance is uncomfortable. In meetings with North Americans, they move a
little closer. We assume they are pushy and react negatively, although we don't
know exactly why.
Gestures help us clarify confusing
messages, so differences in body language are a major source of
misunderstanding. We may also make the mistake of assuming that a non-American
who speaks English has mastered the body language of our culture as well. It
therefore pays to learn some basic differences in the ways people supplement
their words with body movement. Take the signal for no. North Americans shake
their heads back and forth; the Japanese move their right hands; Sicilians
raise their chins. Or take eye contact. North Americans read each other
through eye contact. They may assume that a person who won't meet our gaze is
evasive and dishonest. But in many parts of Latin America, keeping your eyes
lowered is a sign of respect. It's also a sign of respect among many black
Americans, which some schoolteachers have failed to learn. When they scold their black students, saying "Look
at me when I'm talking to you," they only create confusion for the
Sometimes people from different cultures
misread an intentional signal, and sometimes they overlook the signal entirely
or assume that a meaningless gesture is significant. For example, an Arab man
indicates a romantic interest in a woman by running a hand backward across his
hair; most Americans would dismiss this gesture as meaningless. On the other
hand, an Egyptian might mistakenly assume that a Westerner sitting with the
sole of his or her shoe showing is offering a grave insult.
Social behaviour and manners
What is polite in one country may be
considered rude in another. In Arab countries, for example, it is impolite to
take gifts to a man's wife but acceptable to take gifts to his children. In
Germany, giving a woman a red rose is considered a romantic invitation,
inappropriate if you are trying to establish a business relationship with her.
In India, you might be invited to visit someone's home "any time."
Being reluctant to make an unexpected visit, you might wait to get a more
definite invitation. But your failure to take the Indian literally is an
insult, a sign that you do not care to develop the friendship.
Behind The Scenes At Parker Pen
Do as the Natives Do,
But Should You Eat the Roast Gorilla Hand
If offered, you should eat the roast
gorilla hand—so says Roger E. Axtel, vice president of The Parker Pen Company.
Axtel spent 18 years living and travelling in the 154 countries where Parker
sells pens. He learned that communicating with foreign nationals demands more than
merely learning their language. The gorilla hand (served rising from mashed
yams) was prepared for a meal in honor of an American family-planning expert
who was visiting a newly emerged African nation, and the guest of honor was
expected to eat it, so he did. Learning the behaviour expected of you as you do
business internationally can be daunting if not intimidating. Axtel recommends
the following rules to help you get off to a good start without embarrassment.
Basic Rule #1: What's in a Name?
The first transaction between even ordinary
citizens— and the first chance to make an impression for better or worse—is an
exchange of names. In America, there is not very much to get wrong. And even if
you do, so what? Not so elsewhere. In the Eastern Hemisphere, where name
frequently denotes social rank or family status, a mistake can be an outright
insult, and so can using someone's given name without permission. "What
would you like me to call you?" is always the opening line of one overseas
deputy director for an international telecommunications corporation.
"Better to ask several times," he advises, "than to get it
wrong." Even then, "I err on the side of formality." Another
frequent traveler insists his company provide him with a list of key people he
will meet—country by country, surnames underlined—to be memorized on the flight
Basic Rule #2: Eat, Drink, and Be Wary.
Away from home, eating is a language all
its own. No words can match it for saying "glad to meet you ... glad to be
doing business with you . . . glad to have-you here." Mealtime is no time
for a thanks-but-no-thanks response. Accepting what is on your plate is
tantamount to accepting host, country, and company. So no matter how tough
things may be to swallow, swallow. Often what is offered constitutes your host
jj country's proudest culinary achievements. Squeamishness comes not so much
from the thing itself as from, your unfamiliarity with it. After all, an oyster
has | remarkably the same look and consistency as a sheep’s eye (a delicacy
in Saudi Arabia).
Is there any polite way out besides the
back door? Most business travelers say no, at least not before taking a few
bites. It helps to slice unfamiliar food very thin. This way, you minimize the
texture and the reminder of where it came from. Another useful dodge is not
knowing what you are eating. What's for dinner? Don't ask.
Basic Rule #3: Clothes Can Make You or
Wherever you are, you should not look out
of place. Wear something you look natural in, something you know how to wear,
and something that fits in with your surroundings. For example, a woman dressed
in a tailored suit, even with high heels and flowery blouse, looks startlingly
masculine in a country full of diaphanous saris. More appropriate attire might
be a silky, loose-fitting dress in a bright color. With few exceptions, the
general rule everywhere, whether for business, for eating out, or even for
visiting people at home, is that you should be very buttoned up: conservative
suit and tie for men, dress or skirt-suit for women.
Basic Rule #4: American Spoken Here— You
We should be grateful that so many people
outside the United States speak English. Even where Americans aren't
understood, their language often is. It's when we try to speak someone else's
language that the most dramatic failures of communication seem to occur. At
times, the way we speak is as misinterpreted as what we are trying to say; some
languages are incomprehensible as pronounced by outsiders. But no matter how
you twist most native tongues, some meaning gets through—or at least you get an
A for effort even if it doesn't. Memorizing a toast or greeting nearly always
serves to break the ice, if not the communication barrier.
Rules of etiquette may be formal or informal.
Formal rules are the specifically taught "rights" and
"wrongs" of how to behave in common situations, such as table manners
at meals. Members of a culture can put into words the formal rule being
violated. Informal social rules are much more difficult to identify and are
usually learned by watching how people behave and then imitating that
behaviour. Informal rules govern how men and women are supposed to behave, how
and when people may touch each other, when it is appropriate to use a person's
first name, and so on. Violations of these rules cause a great deal of
discomfort to the members of the culture, but they usually cannot verbalize
what it is that bothers them.
Although language and cultural differences
are significant barriers to communication, these problems can be resolved if
people maintain an open mind. Unfortunately, however, many of us have an
ethnocentric reaction to people from other cultures—that is, we judge all other
groups according to our own standards.
When we react ethnocentrically, we ignore
the distinctions between our own culture and the other person's culture. We
assume that others will react the same way we do, that they will operate from
the same assumptions, and that they will use language and symbols in the
"American" way. An ethnocentric reaction makes us lose sight of the
possibility that our words and actions will be misunderstood, and it makes us
more likely to misunderstand the behaviour of foreigners.
Generally, ethnocentric people are prone to
stereotyping and prejudice:
They generalize about an entire group of
people on the basis of sketchy evidence and then develop biased attitudes
toward the group. As a consequence, they fail to see people as they really are.
Instead of talking with Abdul Kar-hum, unique human being, they talk to an
Arab. Although they have never met an Arab before, they may already believe
that all Arabs are, say, hagglers. The
personal qualities of Abdul Kar-hum become insignificant in the face of such
preconceptions. Everything he says and does will be forced to fit the
Bear in mind that Americans are not the
only people in the world who are prone to ethnocentrism. Often, both parties
are guilty of stereotyping and prejudice. Neither is open-minded about the
other. Little wonder, then, that misunderstandings arise. Fortunately, a
healthy dose of tolerance can prevent a lot of problems.
Tips for communicating with people from other cultures
We may never completely overcome linguistic
and cultural barriers or totally erase ethnocentric tendencies, but we can
communicate effectively with people from other cultures if we work at it.
Learning about a culture
The best way to prepare yourself to do
business with people from another culture is to study their culture in advance.
If you plan to live in another country or to do business there repeatedly,
learn the language. The same holds true if you must work closely with a
subculture that has its own language, such as Vietnamese Americans or the
Hispanic Americans that Vons is trying to reach. Even if you end up transacting
business in English, you show respect by making the effort to learn the
language. In addition, you will learn something about the culture and its
customs in the process. If you do not have the time or opportunity to learn the
language, at least learn a few words.
Also reading books and articles about the
culture and talking to people who have dealt with its members, preferably
people who have done business with them very helpful. Concentrating on learning
something about their history, religion, politics, and customs, without
ignoring the practical details either. In that regard, you should know
something about another country's weather conditions, health-care facilities,
money, transportation, communications, and customs regulations.
Also find out about a country's
subcultures, especially its business subculture. Does the business world have
its own rules and protocol? Who makes decisions? How are negotiations usually
conducted? Is gift giving expected? What is the etiquette for exchanging
business cards? What is the appropriate attire for attending a business
meeting? Seasoned business travellers suggest the following:
• In Spain, let a handshake last five to
seven strokes; pulling away too soon may be interpreted as a sign of rejection.
In France, however, the preferred handshake is a single stroke.
• Never give a gift of liquor in Arab
• In England, never stick pens or other
objects in your front suit pocket.; doing so is considered gauche.
• In Pakistan, don't be surprised when
businesspeople excuse themselves in the midst of a meeting to conduct prayers.
Moslems pray five times a day.
• Allow plenty of time to get to know the
people you're dealing with in Africa. They're suspicious of people who are in a
hurry. If you concentrate solely on the task at hand, Africans will distrust
you and avoid doing business with you.
• In Arab countries, never turn down food
or drink; it's an insult to refuse hospitality of any kind. But don't be too
quick to accept, either. A ritual refusal ("I don't want to put you to any
trouble" or "I don't want to be a bother") is expected before
you finally accept.
• Stress the longevity
of your company when dealing with the Germans, Dutch, and Swiss. If your
company has been around for a while, the founding date should be printed on
your business cards.
These are just a few examples of the
variations in customs that make intercultural business so interesting.
Handling written communication
Intercultural business writing falls into
the same general categories as other forms of business writing. How you handle
these categories depends on the subject and purpose of your message, the
relationship between you and the reader, and the customs of the person to whom
the message is addressed.
Letters are the most common form of
intercultural business correspondence. They serve the same purposes and follow
the same basic organizational plans (direct and indirect) as letters you would
send within your own country. Unless you are personally fluent in the language
of the intended readers, you should ordinarily write your letters in English or
have them translated by a professional translator. If you and the reader speak
different languages, be especially concerned with achieving clarity:
• Use short, precise words that say exactly
what you mean.
• Rely on specific terms to explain your
points. Avoid abstractions altogether, or illustrate them with concrete
• Stay away from slang, jargon, and buzz
words. Such words rarely translate well. Nor do idioms and figurative
expressions. Abbreviations, tscfo-nyms (such as NOKAI) and CAD/CAM), and North
American product names may also lead to confusion.
• Construct sentences that are shorter and
simpler than those you might use when writing to someone fluent in English.
• Use short paragraphs. Each paragraph
should stick to one topic and be no more than eight to ten lines.
• Help readers follow your train of thought
by using transitional devices. Precede related points with expressions like in
addition and first, second, third.
• Use numbers, visual aids, and pre-printed
forms to clarify your message. These devices are generally understood in most
Your word choice should also reflect the
relationship between you and the reader. In general, be somewhat more formal
than you would be in writing to people in your own culture. In many other
cultures, people use a more elaborate, old-fashioned style, and you should gear
your letters to their expectations. However, do not carry formality to
extremes, or you will sound unnatural.
In terms of format, the two most common
approaches for intercultural business letters are the block style (with blocked
paragraphs) and the modified block style (with indented paragraphs). You may
use either the American format for dates (with the month, day, and year, in
that order) or the European style (with the day before the month and year). For
the salutation, use Dear (Title/Last Name). Close the letter with Sincerely or
Sincerely yours, and sign it personally.
If you correspond frequently with people in
foreign countries, your letterhead should include the name of your country and
cable or telex information. Send your letters by air mail, and ask that
responses be sent that way as well.
Check the postage too; rates for sending
mail to most other countries are not the same as rates for sending it within
In the letters you receive, you will notice
that people in other countries use different techniques for their correspondence.
If you are aware of some of these practices, you will be able to concentrate on
the message without passing judgement on the writers. Their approaches are not
good or bad, just different.
The Japanese, for example, are slow to come
to the point. Their letters typically begin with a remark about the season or
weather. This is followed by an inquiry about your health or congratulations on
your prosperity. A note of thanks for your patronage might come next. After
these preliminaries, the main idea is introduced. If the letter contains bad
news, the Japanese begin not with a buffer, but with apologies for
Letters from Latin America look different
too. Instead of using letterhead stationery, Latin American companies use a
cover page with their printed seal in the centre. Their letters appear to be
longer, because they use much wider margins.
Memos and reports
Memos and reports sent overseas fall into
two general categories: those written to and from subsidiaries, branches, or
joint venture partners and those written to clients or other outsiders. When
the memo or report has an internal audience, the style may differ only slightly
from that of a memo or report written for internal use in North America.
Because sender and recipient have a working relationship and share a common
frame of reference, many of the language and cultural barriers that lead to
misunderstandings have already been overcome. However, if the reader's native
language is not English, you should take extra care to ensure clarity: Use
concrete and explicit words, simple and direct sentences, short paragraphs,
headings, and many transitional devices.
If the memo or report is written for an
external audience, the style of the document should be relatively formal and
impersonal. If possible, the format should be like that of reports typically
prepared or received by the audience. In the case of long, formal reports, it
is also useful to discuss reporting requirements and expectations with the
recipient beforehand and to submit a preliminary draft for comments before
delivering the final report.
Many international transactions involve
shipping and receiving goods. A number of special-purpose documents are
required to handle these transactions:
price quotations, invoices, bills of
lading, time drafts, letters of credit, correspondence with international
freight forwarders, packing lists, shipping documents, and collection
documents. Many of these documents are standard forms; you simply fill in the
data as clearly and accurately as possible in the spaces provided. Samples are
ordinarily available in a company's files if it frequently does business
abroad. If not, you may obtain descriptions of the necessary documentation from
the United States Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration,
Washington, D.C., 20230. (For Canadian information, contact the Department of
External Affairs, Trade Division, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A OG2.)
When preparing forms, pay particular
attention to the method you use for stating weights and measures and money
values. The preferred method is to use the other country's system of
measurement and its currency values for documenting the transaction; however,
if your company uses U.S. or Canadian weights, measures, and dollars, you
should follow that policy. Check any conversion calculations carefully.
Handling oral communication
Oral communication with people from other
cultures is more difficult to handle than written communication, but it can
also be more rewarding, from both a business and a personal standpoint. Some
transactions simply cannot be handled without face-to-face contact.
When engaging in oral communication, be
alert to the possibilities for misunderstanding. Recognize that you may be
sending signals you are unaware of and that you may be misreading cues sent by
the other person. To overcome language and cultural barriers, follow these
• Keep an open mind. Don't stereotype the
other person or react with preconceived ideas. Regard the person as an
individual first, not as a representative of another culture.
• Be alert to the other person's customs.
Expect him or her to have different values, beliefs, expectations, and
• Try to be aware of unintentional meanings
that may be read into your message. Clarify your true intent by repetition and
• Listen carefully and patiently. If you do
not understand a comment, ask the person to repeat it.
• Be aware that the other person's body
language may mislead you. Gestures and expressions mean different things in
different cultures. Rely more on words than on non-verbal communication to
interpret the message.
• Adapt your style to the other person's.
If the other person appears to be direct and straightforward, follow suit. If
not, adjust your behaviour to match.
• At the end of a conversation, be sure
that you and the other person both agree on what has been said and decided.
Clarify what will happen next.
• If appropriate, follow up by writing a
letter or memo summarizing the conversation and thanking the person for meeting
In short, take advantage of the other
person's presence to make sure that your message is getting across and that you
understand his or her message too.
Speeches are both harder and simpler to
deal with than personal conversations. On the one hand, speeches don't provide
much of an opportunity for exchanging feedback; on the other, you may either
use a translator or prepare your remarks in advance and have someone who is
familiar with the culture check them over. If you use a translator, however, be
sure to use someone who is familiar not only with both languages but also with
the terminology of your field of business. Experts recommend that the
translator be given a copy of the speech at least a day in advance.
Furthermore, a written translation given to members of the audience to
accompany the English speech can help reduce communication barriers. The extra
effort will be appreciated and will help you get your point across.
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