Intercultural business communication
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
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
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
• 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
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 open.
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 sequence.
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.
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 customs.
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 communicate.
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
• 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
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 any culture.
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
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 cultures.
• 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 situation.
• 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
• Emphasizing common ground. Look for similarities to work from.
• Sending clear messages. Make your verbal and non-verbal messages
• 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
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 correspondence.
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 consequences.
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
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
• Let other people finish what they have to say. If you interrupt, you
may miss something important. And you'll show a lack of respect.
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
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
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
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 discussion.
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, shouldn't it?
The Japanese, knowing that North Americans are impatient, use time to
their advantage when negotiating with us. One of them expressed it this
"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
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
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 over.
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
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 Break You
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 Hope.
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 preconceived image.
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 countries.
• In England, never stick pens or other objects in your front suit
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
• 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 examples.
• 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 cultures.
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
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 your own.
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
Many international transactions involve shipping and receiving goods. A
number of special-purpose documents are required to handle these
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 suggestions:
• 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 mannerisms.
• Try to be aware of unintentional meanings that may be read into your
message. Clarify your true intent by repetition and examples.
• 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
• 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
• If appropriate, follow up by writing a letter or memo summarizing the
conversation and thanking the person for meeting with you.
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
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