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INTERCULTURAL BUSINESS COMMUNICATION

1. THE CONCEPT OF CULTURE

The first ‘modern’ definition of culture ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge,
belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man
as a member of society’ traces back to 1871 to the British anthropologist Edward Burnett
Tylor. (Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1871)

In our approach, culture is used in the sense of a shared system of beliefs, patterns of
behaviour, meanings, values that underlie people’s understanding of experience and
their way of relating to one another.

Anthropologists distinguish between two dimensions of culture, material and symbolic.

The anthropological definition of culture usually includes six main elements:


1. Meanings
2. Values/world view/beliefs covering 5 basic areas:
• human nature
• relationship to nature
• time
• activity
• relationships
3. Norms
4. Behavior patterns or social roles
5. Artefacts - technologies, materials, tools
6. Techniques, skills, the ways in which artifacts are used.

The pattern of these six elements, specific to a group of people, makes up a culture.

These elements are closely interconnected. E.g., when a new technology is introduced into
a culture, it can influence or be influenced by the norms, meanings, world view, values, and
behaviour patterns of a given culture.

These elements are passed down from one generation to the next through education
(socialisation, or enculturation).
CHARACTERISTICS AND FUNCTIONS OF CULTURE

In the anthropological sense, culture determines:


• the way we act
• the manner in which we relate to others
• the way that we think about/interpret events happening around us

Characteristics of culture

Culture can be described as being:

 Learned. (through the process of “enculturation”) - not merely passively absorbed, but
rather taught and learned.
 Shared by members of a particular society.
 Patterned: members of a particular society live and think in distinctive and describable
ways (patterns of thinking, patterns of behaviour)
 Constructed (through continuous social interaction, individuals create, recreate, and
change the “patterns” of a particular culture). Elements of culture change over time.
 Symbolic: people within a particular culture possess a shared understanding of meaning.
 Arbitrary: culture is created by human beings; it is not based on/dictated by natural
laws.
 Internalised: members of a given society perceive culture as natural, as part of their
character.

Enculturation refers to the process of learning one’s own culture.

Conrad Phillip Kottak, in Window on Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Anthropology,


defines enculturation as follows:

Enculturation is the process where the culture that is currently established teaches an
individual the accepted norms and values of the culture or society in which the individual
lives. The individual can become an accepted member and fulfill the needed functions
and roles of the group. Most importantly the individual knows and establishes a context
of boundaries and accepted behaviour that dictates what is acceptable and not acceptable
within the framework of that society. It teaches the individual their role within society as
well as what is accepted behaviour within that society and lifestyle.

Enculturation is achieved through verbal and non-verbal communication. The elements of


culture that are learned:

• technological
• economic
• political
• interactive
• ideological
• world view.

Enculturation - first-culture learning.

The functions of culture

Culture:
• specifies rules for acquiring and transferring information;
• standardises perceptions;
• defines attitudes for intra-group and extra-group relationships;
• sets the institutional parameters that condition human behaviour and stabilise social
systems;
• standardises relationships, so that people need not be constantly concerned about the
implication of their behaviour.

The codes for decoding external information, assigning values and priorities to that information,
classifying forms of behaviour as acceptable or not, and understanding social hierarchy are all
passed down from one generation to another through a system of reward and punishment.

Subcultures and countercultures

In addition to national cultures, there are subcultures (cultures shared by minorities


within a broader culture) and countercultures (shared by people whose beliefs, values, or norms
challenge those of the main culture).

• Examples of subcultures: bikers, body piercing fans, military culture, Star Trek fans.
• Examples of countercultures: the hippie movement of the 1960s, the green movement, feminist
groups.

Ethnocentrism vs. cultural relativism

Two opposite conceptions about cultures other than your own:


Ethnocentrism (the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of your
own culture), based on
- the belief that one's own race or ethnic group is the most important and/or that its
culture is superior to those of other groups;
- an incapacity to understand that cultural difference does not imply inferiority.

Ethnocentrism: one of the biggest internal threats a company faces today.

Cultural relativism (the belief that the concepts and values of a culture cannot be fully
translated into/ fully understood in, other languages; a specific cultural artefact, e.g. a ritual,
has to be understood in terms of the symbolic system of which it is a part.

Each culture has to be understood on its own terms.

Parochialism and ethnocentrism

Parochialism: the belief that there is no other way of doing things except that found within
your own culture.
Ethnocentrism : the way of doing things specific to your culture is superior to any other.

The importance of cultural understanding in global business practice

Since business decisions and options are more than ever influenced by the varied cultural
backgrounds and perspectives of different corporate stakeholders, multicultural understanding
and skills are vital for business managers nowadays.
Due to the fast growth of global business, people, funds, information, and knowledge
travel more quickly and widely than ever. As a result, nations and cultures are constantly being
assimilated and homogenized, and yet, at the same time, revealing more about their cultural
diversity. Different cultures, norms, and standards meet and interact in and outside of a global
corporation on a daily basis. The permanent increase in major global mergers and alliances also
promotes both intra-firm and inter-firm diversity and multiculturalism.
Different cultures give rise to different socio-politico-economic systems and models.
Therefore, economic systems and policies, market mechanisms, financial institutions, corporate
systems and governance are all essentially culture-bound. Thus, understanding different cultures
is critical in understanding different systems.
Comprehension of cultural diversity is essential for global business development and
success. According to recent research, managers, shareholders, business partners, and other
corporate stakeholders tend to make decisions and choices based on varied cultural
circumstances and perspectives. Although it is said and assumed that decisions have to rely on
cultural harmony, cooperation, and synergy, cultural misunderstanding, conflict, and collision
are often experienced.
Fostering a global perspective towards diversity and multiculturalism should begin with
an understanding of cultural values, perceptions, manners, social structure, and decision-making
practices of different cultures. Understanding other cultures starts with acknowledging the
differences and diversity in the way people think, talk, act, do business, etc.

Culture pervades every aspect of an organisation. Its influence on business practices is


important in such areas as:
• problem solving
• decision making
• meeting management
• team building
• communication and negotiation styles

However, the impact of culture on life and work is sometimes misunderstood: people fail to
see how it might be used to secure organisational effectiveness and success.
“Culture still seems like a luxury item to most managers” (Fons Trompenaars, Riding the
Waves of Culture).

In a global economy with an increasingly diverse workforce, culture’s impact on business


cannot be ignored. Business people must be aware of the different cultural landscapes around
the world and the way they affect business. The importance and consequences of cultural
differences should not be overestimated or underestimated.

Workforce diversity is an asset that should be capitalised on.

J.T. Childs, Jr., vice-president of IBM states that: “Workforce diversity is the bridge between
the workplace and the marketplace. And, it is anchored on ideals that guide how you see
citizens of all countries as potential customers.”

2. INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION

Intercultural communication is a rather new field of study, and it involves several


disciplines: anthropology, psychology, business studies, communication science, linguistics,
sociology, geography, or history.

Richard Porter and Larry Samovar define intercultural communication as occurring


“whenever a message producer is a member of one culture and a message receiver is a
member of another”. (Richard Porter & Larry Samovar, 1985, 15)

Generally, intercultural communication refers to communication taking place


between people with different cultural and national backgrounds and who do not share the
same mother tongue. Gibson states that:

Intercultural communication takes place when the sender and the receiver are from
different cultures. Communication can be very difficult if there is a big difference
between the two cultures; if there is too much ‘cultural noise’, it can break down
completely. (Gibson, 2002: 9)
Intercultural business communication refers to communication between business
people from different cultures performed either within a company, or between/among
companies.

According to Hofstede, intercultural communication abilities involve three phases:


 Awareness
 Knowledge
 Skills

 Awareness is the starting point, the acknowledgment that each individual carries a
‘particular mental software’ according to the environment in which he/she was brought
up.

 Knowledge stands for the second step, when people interacting with other cultures have
to learn about those cultures, about their values, beliefs, symbols, and rituals. As an
outsider, the learner may never come to share those values and beliefs, but he/she may
get a good understanding of them.

 Awareness and knowledge, combined with practice, lead to skills - (Hofstede, G.H.). The
learner has to understand and apply the values, symbols, rituals of the other culture in
order to achieve effective communication within an intercultural environment.

Words and gestures may mean different things to different people, and understanding of the
connotative meaning varies from one individual to another, according to his/her culture and
values.

Across cultures, some words or gestures may convey different meanings. Even the meaning
of ‘yes’ may vary from ‘definitely so’ to ‘maybe, I’ll consider it’, with many other
connotative meanings according to the context of the statement. Another example is the
phrase ‘you fool’, which may be an insult or, if pronounced with the right intonation, may be
a common way of joking among friends. The use of this type of ‘friendly insult’ depends on
the speaker’s culture. It may be totally inappropriate in countries like Indonesia, where status
is sacred and maintaining face is vital, and such a joke would be taken as an insult.

A well-known example of how perception works is the picture below, known as Rubin’s
vase, which can be seen as a vase, or as two heads opposite each other.
The fact that people perceive the same thing in different ways is particularly important in
intercultural communication. The way we perceive is culturally determined, and the
general lack of awareness of this is another barrier to intercultural communication.
Here is an example, adapted from Adler, of how perception works and how important the
connection between culture and communication is. During negotiations between a Japanese
businessman and a Norwegian one, the former might say that the deal will be very difficult, and
this means for him that there will be no deal. His polite and indirect way of saying no is
misinterpreted by the Norwegian partner, who asks how they can solve the problem. This is a
typical example of how the same statement can be understood completely differently by two
people with different cultural backgrounds. In this case, proficiency in BELF, knowledge of how
to put words together correctly in order to convey information, is not enough to facilitate
successful intercultural business communication.

Barriers to intercultural communication

There are several barriers to intercultural communication that business people have to
consider. While it is true to some degree that in the global business environment businessmen
share certain values and beliefs, they are never stronger than the individual’s identity and culture.
The belief that only others have to adapt to your culture is mistaken and ineffective in business
contexts.

 It is important to consider the culture of your partner in order to understand him/her and
achieve effective business communication.

 Another barrier to intercultural communication is being guided by stereotypes, by a false


image or idea of a certain thing or person. ‘In intercultural communication, in particular,
it is vital to distinguish between what is part of a person’s cultural background and what
is part of their personality.’ (Gibson, 12)

 Even if there is a range of beliefs, attitudes, and values common to a certain culture, one
cannot apply them to all individuals as a general rule. Here are some classic examples of
stereotypes we all know and sometimes unconsciously apply to each individual we
interact with:
 The perfect Brit should be: humble.... as the royal family, welcoming... as the
weather, relaxed...as a guardsman, generous...as a Scot, intelligible...as the Welsh.

 The perfect European should be: technical ...... as a Portuguese, humble ...... as a
Spaniard, cooking ...... like a Brit, available ...... as a Belgian, controlled ...... as an
Italian, driving ...... like the French, organized ...... as a Greek, sober ...... as the
Irish, humorous ...... as a German, generous ...... as a Dutchman, discreet ...... as a
Dane, famous ...... as a Luxembourger, talkative ...... as a Finn, flexible ...... as a
Swede, patient ...... as an Austrian.

In business intercultural communication, participants need to take into account the fact that
they are dealing with individuals, and there are always exceptions to every rule.

There are cultural patterns which work as a guideline and prevent basic intercultural
misunderstandings, but at the same time one should adapt them to each individual and stay
open to new experiences and practices.

For example, the Japanese are typically seen as polite, quiet, reserved partners, who take their
time before reaching a decision, while American businessmen are well-known for the speed
with which they close a deal, but these rules do not always apply.

Here is an example of misinterpretation because of lack of cultural awareness. The


American executive often asks his partner to use his/her first name. However, this request
should not be regarded as an invitation for intimacy, but as a cultural norm. In the USA it is
common for businessmen in high-powered positions to cultivate an accessible, down-to-earth
image by promoting the use of their first name.

So, when decoding a message, it is essential to consider the cultural background attached
to the linguistic meaning. Successful interaction in Business English and in business
intercultural settings depends on the understanding of the relationship between language and
culture.

The role of intercultural communication in today’s corporate world

The globalisation process has led to the emergence of transnational networks, within and
between companies: companies spread globally, employees are sent on international
assignments; they communicate with co-workers from foreign countries, and do business with
people from various cultures. The amount and the intensity of their intercultural involvement
depend on the organisation type and its degree of international activities.
 ICTs development → changes in the manner in which people communicate, locally and
globally.

 Effective communication: essential for maintaining relationships in an increasingly


interdependent world.

 Shared culture makes communication, understanding, predictability, and everyday


business interactions easier and less costly. On the other hand, cultural diversity
increases the risk of misunderstanding, unpredictability, and conflict.

 Intercultural (or cross-cultural) business communication: one of the most critical


factors contributing to business growth and success in today's ever more complex global
marketplace, for obvious reasons:

 Globalisation of the market place and joint ventures between major corporations
involve cultural diversity and the need for effective communication between
different cultures within and among companies.

 Mobility, climbing today’s corporate ladder, and even maintaining an executive


position in a company also largely depend on intercultural communication skills.

 Poor intercultural communication can threaten a company’s effectiveness by


reducing its competitive edge and staff retention. The ability of businesses to acquire
intercultural competence: a condition for success in an increasingly competitive,
global business arena → Many companies and organisations provide cultural
awareness training for their leaders and employees.

3. NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION

Non-verbal communication refers to any kind of communication not involving words. Usually,
most people think of facial expressions and gestures, but while these are important elements of
nonverbal communication, they are not the only ones. Nonverbal communication also includes
vocal sounds that are not words such as grunts, sighs, and whimpers. Even when actual words
are being used, there are nonverbal sound elements such as voice tone, or the speed or pitch of
what we say (known as paralanguage).
Nonverbal communication can be incorporated in a person’s dress. In our society, a person
wearing a police uniform is already communicating an important message. Another example is a
man’s business suit, which is perceived by some as communicating an air of effectiveness and
professionalism. Business dress differs widely across cultures and it is influenced by both
national culture and corporate culture.

Body language

Body language is a form of nonverbal communication, which includes body posture, gestures,
and facial expressions. The study of body movement and expression is known as kinesics.

Gestures and body language communicate as effectively as words. Therefore, we should consider
it as an important part of nonverbal communication. The movements of our arms, hands, etc.
stand for another way in which we broadcast interpersonal data. We move our bodies when
communicating because, as research has shown, it helps ease the mental effort when
communication is difficult.

Physical expressions reveal many things about the person using them. For example, gestures can
emphasize a point or relay a message, posture can reveal boredom or great interest. We all use
gesture to reinforce an idea or to help describe something. Body language gives us messages
about the other person that we can interpret at an intuitive level.

We use gestures daily, almost instinctively. Usually body language occurs unconsciously.
However, as the quality of our communication depends a lot on our body language, it would be
advisable to become conscious of our body language.

Body language has different meanings in different cultures. People use and understand body
language differently, or not at all. The same gesture can mean different things to people from
different cultures. Thus, the way we interpret body language depends on the situation, culture,
relationship, etc.

One of the most basic and powerful body-language signals is when you cross your arms across
the chest. This can indicate that you are putting up an unconscious barrier between yourself and
others. It can also indicate that your arms are cold, which would be clarified by rubbing the arms
or huddling. In a friendly situation, it can mean that you are thinking deeply about what is being
discussed. But in a serious or confrontational situation, it can mean that you are expressing
opposition. In Finland, this is not an appropriate gesture, as it signifies arrogance or a close-
minded position. In Turkey, it is rude to cross your arms while facing someone.

Most gestures do not have universal meanings, but they have specific connotations in different
cultures. They are culture specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words. The same
gesture can mean different things to people from different cultural contexts, ranging from
approving to highly offensive.

1.
This gesture means ‘okay’ in the USA, ‘zero’ in France, ‘money’ in Japan, or ‘I will kill you’ in
Tunisia. In Brazil or Russia, it is totally unacceptable, being considered vulgar. In Denmark,
Norway, Spain, it can be taken as an insult.

2.
The ‘thumbs-up’ sign indicates approval in France, Russia. However, it is a rude gesture in
Australia, Nigeria, and throughout the Arab world.

3.
The ‘V for victory’ sign means ‘victory’, or ‘two’ in Germany, whereas in Britain or Canada it
means ‘victory’ if the palm is facing outward; it can be taken as an insult if the palm is facing
inward. In Australia, it is considered a rude gesture. In New Zealand, this sign is rude and it is
considered obscene when done with the palm facing inward.

Eye contact

Looking someone in the eye is considered as a sign of honesty and interest in some cultures.
However, in other cultures, this can be taken as a sign of disrespect.
Firm eye contact can indicate that a person is thinking positively of what the speaker is saying or
that the other person doesn't trust the speaker enough. Lack of eye contact can indicate
negativity. Eye contact can also be a secondary and misleading gesture because cultural norms
about it vary widely. If a person is looking at you, but is making the arms-across-chest signal,
that can mean that something is bothering the person.

Disbelief is often indicated by averted gaze, or by touching the ear or scratching the chin.
Boredom is indicated by the head tilting to one side, or by the eyes looking straight at the
speaker but becoming slightly unfocused. A head tilt may also indicate a sore neck. Interest can
be indicated through posture or extended eye contact, such as standing and listening properly.
Deceit or the act of withholding information can sometimes be indicated by touching the face
during conversation. Excessive blinking or the absence of blinking is a well-known indicator of
someone who is lying. A harsh or blank facial expression often indicates outright hostility.

The length of time that it is acceptable to maintain direct eye contact varies from one country to
the next.

Failure to meet an Austrian’s or a German’s gaze will give the impression that you are not
trustworthy. Extended, direct eye contact is expected while talking.

For Australians, strong eye contact is very important, as it suggests an honest interlocutor.

Direct eye contact is also appreciated in Canada, Finland, the USA, although it should not be too
intense.

Direct eye contact is not the norm in Japan.

Most Filipinos communicate a great deal of information via eye contact and eyebrow movement.
They may great each other by making eye contact followed by raising and lowering the
eyebrows. However, staring has to be avoided, as it can be construed as an insult.

In South Korea, intermittent eye contact shows honesty and attention.

In Sweden, direct eye contact is expected. While talking to a Swede, look him/her in the eye.

In Argentina, maintaining eye contact is very important, too.

The British often do not look at the other person while they talk.
Touch

Touch has different meanings in different cultures. In Thailand, it is offensive for strangers to
touch the top of a child’s head because the head is the home of the spirit or soul. In western
countries, it is very common to affectionately touch the top of a child’s head. In many countries,
friends of the same sex will walk hand in hand or arm in arm. In Australia this can be seen as
indicating a romantic relationship.

How often, where, and how people touch each other varies widely across cultures. Touch can
convey encouragement, appreciation, friendship, or on the contrary, it can be seen as
inappropriate and harassing. Even in business contexts there are great differences. In the USA,
the touching a female employee, whether innocently or otherwise, has led to law suits for sexual
harassment.

How often and when people shake hands also varies widely. Hugging and kissing are seen as
appropriate forms of greeting in some cultures.

In Greece, a handshake, a kiss, or an embrace can all be encountered at first meetings or among
friends.

Belgians usually shake hands with everyone in the room upon meeting and departure.

Finns usually shake hands, accompanied by eye contact and a nod of head. They do not touch in
public and are not comfortable with such gestures like a hand on the arm or shoulder.

Backslapping is considered a friendly gesture within some cultures. It is a sign of close


friendship among British Canadians, but it is rarely used among the French. Also, backslapping
is not appreciated in Finland, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, Great Britain or Thailand.

The Chinese do not like to be touched by people they do not know. It is essentially important
when dealing with older people or people in important positions.

The Chinese nod or bow slightly when greeting another person, although handshakes are
common.

In Canada, interlocutors do not use to hold hands or touch each other. However, female French
Canadians may touch during conversation or walk arm in arm.

Physical contact during conversation, such as touching arms, hands, is the norm in Brazil.
In Australia, physical contact during conversation is seen as inappropriate, especially between
men.

Body distance (proxemics)

Body distance, meaning how close you get to people while talking or interacting with them,
varies widely across cultures and someone breaking these unspoken rules makes us pretty
uncomfortable. While in the USA the ‘comfort zone’ is about an arm’s length, in Latin America
people tend to get closer to each other.

British Canadians are uncomfortable standing any closer to another person, whereas French
Canadians may stand slightly closer.

Brazilians are generally friendly and outgoing and communicate in extremely close proximity.

In Argentina, people communicate in close proximity, often with a hand on the other person.

Greeks also communicate in relatively close proximity.

Danes like plenty of personal space around them. Stand about two arm’s length away when
talking to a Dane.

Paralanguage

The tone of voice, the speed or pitch, are known as important factors in conveying a message.
Intonation patterns differ a lot across cultures.

Paralanguage reminds us that people convey their feelings not only in what they say, but also in
how they say it. What in one culture sounds like an uproarious argument, in another would be
considered appropriate for a reasonable conversation.

People usually think of intonation as being directly linked to the speaker's emotions. In fact,
different languages can use different intonation patterns, giving rise to cross-cultural
misunderstandings.

Bernard Comrie, in his paper Interrogatively in Russian, while analyzing Russian intonation
contours and their correlation with syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic structures, states that “[…]
reading the one language with the intonation pattern appropriate to the other can give rise to
entirely unintentional effects: English with Russian intonation sounds unfriendly, even rude or
threatening, to the native speaker of English; Russian with an English intonation sounds affected
or hypocritical to the native speaker of Russian.” (Comrie, 1984:17)

Turn-taking

The way that turn-taking works in a conversation varies across cultures. Turn-taking in a
conversation is another form of non-verbal communication. We know when it is our turn to
speak by a number of signals that are not verbal. It is very rare in a conversation for someone to
actually tell us (in words) when it is our turn and how long we have to speak. However, there are
signals that tell us and these signals vary between cultures.
Interruptions and silence are seen as appropriate in some cultures, whereas in some others are
considered impolite and disturbing. Silence has different meanings for different cultures. For
some cultures, silence can indicate respect. There are times when one can say more by being
silent. Sometimes silence may be the best choice, as the saying says ‘Silence is golden …’ In
Australia, silence can often be interpreted as either shyness or lack of interest.

4 CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND CULTURAL PLURALISM

Cultural diversity refers to the unique characteristics that distinguish us as individuals and
identify us as members of a group or groups. It goes beyond concepts such as: race, ethnicity,
socio-economic group, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age. Cultural diversity should be
distinguished from cultural pluralism.

Cultural pluralism is about harmonious co-existence and co-operation of different cultures or


ethnic groups, each of which retains some of its cultural identity; peaceful co-existence of
diverse lifestyles, folkways, manners, language patterns, religious beliefs and practices, family
structures.

Understanding cultural diversity helps us predict the results of intercultural encounters, predict
how people in certain cultures will speak, act, negotiate, and make decisions.

Managing cultural diversity

The first step in managing diversity: recognising it and learning not to fear it.
Everyone is the product of their own culture, therefore we need to increase:
• self-awareness
• cross-cultural awareness

Steps towards intercultural awareness:


• Admit ignorance (admit that your assumptions may be wrong) - part of the process of
becoming culturally aware. Assume differences, not similarities.
• Suspend judgments. Collect as much information as possible before evaluating a situation.

Empathise.
Celebrate diversity. E. g. companies should find ways of sharing the cultures of their
diverse workforce.
Cultural differences:
• between continents or nations
• within the same company/country/community/ family.

Typical examples of national cultural differences: behaviour and gestures


interpreted differently

 Showing the thumb held upwards means


• “everything's OK”, in the U.S., Brazil
• a rude sexual sign, in some Islamic countries

 If invited to dinner, leaving right after dinner is


• well-mannered, in some Asian countries (otherwise it means you have not eaten enough).
• rude, in India, Europe, South America, and North America (the guest doesn’t enjoy the
company).

 Arriving half an hour late for a dinner invitation


• normal or tolerated in Mediterranean European countries, Latin America, and Africa
• very rude in Germany and the U. S.

 Saying to a female friend one has not seen for a while that she has put on weight:
• a compliment in Africa, Arab cultures, and some countries in South America
• an insult in India, Europe, North America, Australia and Brazil.

 Not instantly accepting an item (i.e a drink) offered to you:


• customary in Persian culture (a sort of role play: the person offering is refused several times
out of politeness before the offer is accepted).
A similar exchange in many East Asian countries
 Talking and laughing loudly in the streets and public places
• accepted, in African, South American and Mediterranean cultures
• considered rude in some Asian cultures (a mark of self-centeredness/ attention seeking)

East vs. west cultural values

Cultural Values West East

Expressed (America & most (The Chinese and Most Asian


European countries) cultures)

Type of Logic Linear (More causal Spiral (more roundabout and subtle)
relationships and direct
associations between A
and B)

Expression of More argumentative, More difficult to say no even if one


Agreement and willing to express means no, disagreement expressed
Disagreement disagreement verbally nonverbally
Communication of More meaning is in the Meaning is often implied or must be
Information explicit, verbal inferred
message.
Use of indirect language patterns
Use of direct language

Expression of More overt, one is Subtle, nonverbal


Honesty more likely to ask the
person to "speak their
mind" or "get it out on
the table"

Expression of Self "I"-oriented "We"-oriented

Sender-oriented Receiver-sensitive

Thinking More rule based or Tends to take context and the


Orientation based on application of specific situation into account in
abstract principles such rule interpretation
as regulations or laws

The Individual Has to have rights and Group duty


greater need for
autonomy and preservation of harmony
individual achievement

Nature of the Less important, tend to Most important business cannot


Business substitute relationship occur until relationship if sound,
Relationship for written agreement, written agreement secondary to
superficial, easy to quan xi, hard to form, long lasting
form, not long lasting

Conflict Trial or confrontation, More mediation though trusted third


Resolution use of lawyers and parties
courts

Time Sense Be on time and end on Appointments less driven by exact


During Meetings time. start and end times

Conflict results Perception of two Win-Win


states: win or lose
To lose is to win

Lose in order to win


Cultural differences

Consider the following conversations:

Situation One:
American: "Hi, how are you?"
Foreign Student: "I am well. I'm glad you asked about me."
American: "Well, I've got to go now, see you later."

The foreign student had not yet learned that, "How are you?" is probably just an extension of
"Hi," and "See you later," is another way of saying good-bye.

Situation two:
"My worst experience in graduate school in the United States was working on team projects with
Americans," said a graduate student from Japan. "I learned a lot while working with my
American friends in graduate school," said a graduate student from Germany.

Friction may also arise between two persons of different cultures when one or both have little
knowledge of the other's background.

Situation Three:
In his booklet Global Village Conversation, Dr. Reginald Smart, Director of International
Studies at State University College in Buffalo, New York tells of such a dialogue between a
Kenyan visiting the USA and an American. The American, impressed by the visitor's impeccable
accent, asked him, "How is it that your English is so good?" He meant the question as a
compliment, an acknowledgement that the Kenyan's diction was superior to his own, and he was
also expressing a genuine desire to know why this was so. The Kenyan decoded the message as
meaning, "I can't understand how someone from such a primitive, backward country could be so
well-educated." He answered, very shortly, "Did anyone ever ask you that question?" meaning
that he had been brought up in an English-speaking environment and thought such a question not
only insulting but stupid. Dr. Smart adds dryly that perhaps it was just as well that the questioner
didn't know how to decode the reply.
Cultural mistakes

Tina (originally from Malaysia): I have worked with a number of Fijians and sometimes I would
touch their curly hair and tell them how nice and soft it feels. Then one day, I found out that in
their culture, you’re not supposed to touch people on the head—only the chief can do that.

Sala (originally from Fiji): When I came here to Australia years ago, people at work would feel
my hair. It made me uncomfortable. We don’t go around touching people on the head in my
Fijian culture. But not just that…if we walk into a room and there are people sitting on the floor,
we always excuse ourselves and stoop a bit as we walk past them so we’re not towering so much
over them. We also avoid reaching near their head for something.
Later on, when they found out, they stopped touching my hair. They were curious about how my
hair feels as it’s very curly.
Mary (originally from Ireland): In the Fijian culture touching hair is NOT done. I’m guilty of
having done this on many occasions, because I have been friends with Fijians at work. I would
run my fingers through their hair and say ‘How I love your hair!’ or something like that. Never
for a minute did I think that I was making my friends uncomfortable.
(http://sielearning.tafensw.edu.au)

The international manager

Being able to handle the cultural dimension represents the biggest challenge while working
abroad.

In international business, there are two well-known rules:


1) The seller adapts to the buyer
2) The visitor is expected to observe local customs

The second of these rules significantly shapes the international manager when he functions in a
new culture. Adapting to the local culture may be an important step in successfully handling
cultural differences. We are all quite familiar with the famous saying ‘When in Rome, do as the
Romans’, or its Chinese alternative ‘Enter village, follow customs’.
Today more and more managers and specialists move around the world, as their companies
expand their operations worldwide. The international manager who, lives in several countries,
operates across national borders, is multilingual and multifaceted. He adapts to the new country
and culture, observes behaviors, local customs, traditions and cultural norms of the host country
in order to become a successful international manager.

Misunderstandings between cultures always exist and if business people are not aware of them,
even the most promising business deal can fall apart. Poor adjustment to the host country may
lead to business failure.

Culture shock

The term “culture shock” - first used in literature by Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalervo
İberg in 1960 in Practical Anthropology: “Cultural Shock: adjustment to new cultural
environments. Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our
familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and
one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life”.

Culture shock represents an issue that has to be considered especially in the context of today’s
increasing number of expatriates (including employees on international assignments) due to:
• the international growth of companies
• the building of strategic alliances and networks
• cross-cultural mergers and acquisitions, etc.

People tend to judge the visual aspects of a culture (behaviour, language, customs) on the basis
of their own values and beliefs. The result: anxiety.

Hofstede’s definition of culture shock: a “state of distress following the transfer of a person to an
unfamiliar cultural environment”, which may be accompanied by physical symptoms.

Other definitions: disorientation/ helplessness produced by the direct exposure to a different


culture/a state of distress after an initial enthusiasm.

A broader definition: the whole stressful process of adaptation (acculturation), the changes
determined by continuous first-hand contact (maintained over a period of time) between
individuals from different cultures. First-hand contact with other cultures exposes people to
stress that frequently leads to culture shock.
Acculturation is both a state (the extent of adaptation to a foreign culture) and a process (the
change over time).

AVOIDING CROSS-CULTURAL MISUNDERSTANDINGS IN GLOBAL BUSINESS

When "Yes" means "No" or "Maybe"

An American businesswoman comes away from a meeting delighted; she finally got her
Japanese supplier to agree to a price. A few days later, she receives questions about price. It’s
almost as if she imagined the meeting. "What's going on here?" she asks. "We agreed on the
price already, didn't we?"

The businesswoman recalls all the Um-hmms and Yesses she heard in the meeting. "They agreed
to the price, they said yes," she mutters to herself. "They even nodded and smiled."

Welcome to the world of intercultural business communication--a world fraught with frequent
misunderstandings, frayed tempers and mistrust. This American Businesswoman is not the first
or last to feel frustrated in this way. Other people have also misunderstood a "yes" response.

The businesswoman needs to understand that irrespective of language, different cultures


communicate in different ways.

Good communication American style is to say what you mean precisely, in as straightforward a
manner as possible. Be direct, get to the point, say what the bottom line is. For other cultures,
this style is rude, abrasive and self-centred.

Many cultures--including Japanese, go to great lengths not to be direct. The risk of disharmony
with other group members is too great to be outspoken. It’s better to agree first and negotiate
afterwards than to blatantly disagree. In our opening scenario, the Japanese supplier appeared to
say yes, but continued to negotiate a price, days after the supposed agreement.

Direct communicators like Americans in general, consider this indirectness deceptive, two-faced
and lacking in integrity. What do you think?

Goals of Communication:

The goals of communication vary across culture and languages. In the US, speech is often used
to demonstrate eloquence, power or lack thereof. The presidential debates are good examples of
this. So too are the expressions "For the sake of argument" or "I'll play the devil’s advocate
and..."
But in many Asian cultures, the goal of communication is to achieve consensus of opinion and to
promote group harmony. "Yes" can mean "no," "maybe," or even "we've got to think a little
more about this and we don't want to fall out with you."

Styles of Communication:

So how do you know when yes really means no? Simply listen to the silent messages and read
the invisible words.

US culture, with its long tradition of rhetoric, values verbal messages greatly. Other cultures are
more sensitive to non-verbal means of communication, such as:

Body posture
Hand gestures
Facial expressions
Eye contact
How close people stand to each other

Misunderstandings and blunders result from failing to recognize and understand many forms of
non-verbal communication. Going back to our opening scenario, the businesswoman remembers
the nods and smiles. But what did they mean in the context of that business meeting?

Not what the American businesswoman thought. They meant disagreement, displeasure,
uncertainty. The lesson to be learnt here is that similar gestures and facial expressions are often
used differently across cultures. The meaning of a smile is not universal. Neither is a frown.

AVOID MISUNDERSTANDINGS IN COMMUNICATING ACROSS CULTURES:

1. Be conscious of body language and non-verbal messages:

What message is communicated in the smiles, frowns, head movements or silence?

2. Watch eye contact:

Reserve judgment on the correct amount of eye-contact. Some cultures encourage plenty, others
frown upon it. You may have to adjust the amount of eye contact according to the status of the
person you're talking to.

3. Listen without interrupting:

Americans are often considered too talkative. People from other cultures may interpret many
interruptions as disrespectful.
4. Summarize what you hear often:

Keeping in mind point 3, clarify what you think you have heard, rephrasing as simply as
possible.

5. Speak slowly, enunciate and avoid idioms:

Only 5% of the world population speaks English as a first language. You may be doing business
with a person who speaks fluent English but who has difficulty understanding your accent, the
idioms, jargon or slang you use. Remember, the simpler the English, the better.

VARIATIONS AMONG RULE-BASED CULTURES

Business communication styles can differ noticeably even among rule-based cultures, and
similarly among relationship-based cultures.

Consider, for example, a typical business presentation in which the speaker is trying to attract
funding for a business venture. The presentation would have a very different character in the
United States than in Germany, even though both countries have strongly rule-based cultures.

The American speaker begins with a small joke to “break the ice,” while this is inappropriate in
Germany. Germans wish to be reassured by the professionalism and seriousness of the speaker.
Humor suggests casualness that might translate into an ill-considered undertaking. The
American’s slides contain flashy visuals with such phrases as “fantastic opportunity,” which
strike the Germans as childish. They prefer graphs and charts to reassure them that proper market
research has been conducted. These differences are due to the fact that Germany is an uncertainty
avoiding culture, while the United States is not. Indeed, the American audience probably
contains venture capitalists who are willing to fund risky startups, while the German audience is
more likely to consist of stolid bankers. The desire for security and predictability go far beyond
the business meeting. Germans pay a premium for high-quality products that are less likely to
break down, and they invest heavily in a highly-engineering physical and social infrastructure on
which they can rely.

The American presentation could also cause problems in Scandinavia. The speaker delivers a
hard sales pitch, sprinkled with buzz words and such terms as “aggressive,” while Scandinavians
prefer a low-key presentation couched in plain language. The American approach reflects a
“masculine” culture that values competition and aggression, whereas Scandinavian culture is
“feminine” and emphasizes cooperation more than competition.
Western Europeans make much of their different styles, but one should see them as variations on
low-context, logic-based communication. It is true that the British are normally reserved and
understated, while the French gave us the very word frank (which refers to the Franks, an old
word for the French). Yet British can deliver a devastating comment with scarcely an inflection
of the voice. If French and Italians become animated or emotional in a business meeting, one
must bear in mind that Descartes was French and Galileo was Italian, and at the end of the day
the decision is likely to reflect the logic and pragmatism of a Glaswegian.

The situation changes somewhat as one moves east. Russian society, for example, is essentially
rule-based, but business partners may find it more important to feel comfortable with each other
than to get the financials right. Business people from abroad should be particularly cognizant of
this, due to the uncertainty-avoiding culture and the tendency of Russians to feel apprehensive
about foreigners. Frequent references to mutual Russian friends and contacts can be reassuring,
as can participating in such rituals as vodka drinking and banya, the Russian sauna.

(http://ba.gsia.cmu.edu/jnh/businesscommunication.pdf)

SOME INTERCULTURAL BLUNDERS

Although unpleasant, intercultural mistakes are a humorous means of understanding the impact
poor cultural awareness or translations can have on a product or company when doing business
abroad.

Below there are a few classic cross cultural blunders:

1. Orange New!

During its 1994 launch campaign, the telecom company Orange had to change its ads in
Northern Ireland. "The future's bright … the future's Orange." That campaign is an advertising
legend. However, in the North the term Orange suggests the Orange Order. The implied message
that the future is bright, the future is Protestant, loyalist...didn't sit well with the Catholic Irish
population.

2. The Swedish furniture giant IKEA somehow agreed upon the name "FARTFULL" for one of
its new desks.

IKEA sells this workbench as the FARTFULL.


In Swedish, fartfull means ‘speedy’ and maybe the word was used to suggest
mobility. However, in English, fartfull means ‘full of farts’. (fart – an escape of gas from the
bowels)

3. GPT New!

In 1988, the General Electric Company (GEC) and Plessey combined to create a new
telecommunications giant. A brand name was desired that evoked technology and innovation.
The winning proposal was GPT for GEC-Plessey Telecommunications. A not very innovative
name and not suggestive of technology and a total disaster for European branding. GPT is
pronounced in French as “J’ai pété” or “I've farted”.

4. In the late 1970s, Wang, the American computer company could not understand why its
British branches were refusing to use its latest motto "Wang Cares". Of course, to British ears
this sounds too close to "Wankers" which would not really give a very positive image to any
company. (wanker – a very stupid and unpleasant person, usually a man)

5. Port Wallhamn

Port Wallhamn is a Swedish port. The companies that surround it used to give their employees
ties with the logo "W" and an anchor. The combination forms a very nice rebus for Wanker,
much to the embarrassment of the British workers who had to wear it.

6. Pepsi

Not to be outdone by Coke when Pepsi started a marketing campaign in Taiwan, the translation
of the Pepsi slogan "Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation" came out as "Pepsi will bring your
ancestors back from the dead."

7. Chevy Nova

Years ago Chevrolet couldn't figure out why the Nova, a practical little economy car, wasn't
selling well in Mexico. After the company figured out that "no va" means "it won't go" in
Spanish, it renamed the car.

8. Electrolux

Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American ad campaign:


Nothing sucks like an Electrolux. But in America if something 'sucks' it means it is really bad.

9. In 2002, Umbro the UK sports manufacturer had to withdraw its new trainers (sneakers)
called the Zyklon. The firm received complaints from many organisations and individuals as it
was the name of the gas used by the Nazi regime to murder millions of Jews in concentration
camps.

10. Honda introduced their new car "Fitta" into Nordic countries in 2001. If they had taken the
time to undertake some cross cultural marketing research they may have discovered that "fitta"
was an old word used in vulgar language in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. In the end they
renamed it "Honda Jazz".

11. Pictures or symbols are not interpreted the same across the world: staff at the African port of
Stevadores saw the "internationally recognised" symbol for "fragile" (i.e. broken wine glass) and
presumed it was a box of broken glass. Rather than waste space they threw all the boxes into the
sea!

12. A famous drug company marketed a new remedy in the United Arab Emirates. To avoid any
mistakes they used pictures. The first picture was of someone ill, the next picture showed the
person taking the medication, the last picture showed them looking well. What they forgot is that
in the Arab world people read from right to left!

(http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/cultural-services/articles/crosscultural-marketing.html)
(http://www.i18nguy.com/translations.html)
(http://www.learnenglish.de/mistakes/HorrorMistakes.htm)

Coca-Cola wanted Chinese characters for a phonetic equivalent of Coca-Cola, so it chose Ke


Kou Ke La, which translates as ‘bite the wax tadpole’ or ‘female horse stuffed with wax’
depending on the dialect.

In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan ‘Come alive with the Pepsi generation’ was
translated as ‘Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.’

In a Bucharest hotel lobby: ‘The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret
that you will be unbearable.’

On a menu of a Swiss restaurant: ‘Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.’

At a Hong Kong dentists: ‘Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists’

In a Greek tailors: ‘Order your summer suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in
strict rotation.’
In a Copenhagen airline office: ‘We take you bags and send them in all directions.’
In a Acapulco hotel: ‘The manager has personally passed all the water served here.’
(Source: Jandt, 2001, Intercultural Communication: An Introduction)

CASE STUDIES

Case Study 1: Cooling Your Heels In New Delhi

Richard was a 30 year-old American sent by his Chicago-based company to set up a buying
office in India. The new office's main mission was to source large quantities of consumer goods
in India: Cotton piece goods, garments, accessories and shoes as well as industrial products such
as tent fabrics and cast iron components.
India's Ministry of Foreign Trade had invited Richard's company to open this buying office
because they knew it would promote exports, bring in badly-needed foreign exchange and
provide manufacturing knowhow to Indian factories.
Richard's was in fact the first international sourcing office to be located anywhere in South Asia.
The MFT wanted it to succeed so that other Western and Japanese companies could be
persuaded to establish similar procurement offices.

The expatriate manager decided to set up the office in the capital, New Delhi, because he knew
he would have to meet frequently with senior government officials. Since the Indian government
closely regulated all trade and industry, Richard often found it necessary to help his suppliers
obtain import licenses for the semi-manufactures and components they required to produce the
finished goods his company had ordered.
Richard found these government meetings frustrating. Even though he always phoned to make
firm appointments, the bureaucrats usually kept him waiting for half an hour or more. Not only
that, his meetings would be continuously interrupted by phone calls and unannounced visitors as
well as by clerks bringing in stacks of letters and documents to be signed. Because of all the
waiting and the constant interruptions, it regularly took him half a day or more to accomplish
something that could have been done back home in 20 minutes.
Three months into this assignment Richard began to think about requesting a transfer to a more
congenial part of the world - "somewhere where things work." He just could not understand why
the Indian officials were being so rude. Why did they keep him waiting? Why didn't the
bureaucrats hold their incoming calls and sign those papers after the meeting so as to avoid the
constant interruptions?
After all, the government of India had actually invited his company to open this buying office.
So didn't he have the right to expect reasonably courteous treatment from the officials in the
various ministries and agencies he had to deal with?

Case study 2
Mei Ling is a student in the Faculty of Business and Economics. When she thought about people
in her home town she remembered that she had noticed that in Kuala Lumpur the expatriate
community tended to stick together. They lived near each other and socialised with each other.
Most of the expats did not spend time with Malaysians or make close friends except with other
Australians or Americans.
Adam is a local student in the Faculty of Business and Economics. He thought about the
overseas students who had been at his school. They all hung around together, made friends with
each other and didn’t seem to make much effort to mix with the Australian students.