The way people do business can vary a great deal between different countries. If you find yourself dealing with culturally diverse partners, suppliers and/or clients, it’s a good idea take a good look at your working practices and see how you may be able to adapt to specific cultural requirements and avoid misunderstandings or unnecessary confrontations.
Knowing about the cultural circumstances of your overseas business relations can help you save money or prevent making mistakes, something small business operators should try to avoid in today’s intensely competitive market.
So, whether you’re visiting another country or receiving overseas visitors, it would be wise for you to watch out for cultural differences. Doing so will help you create a cordial and efficient communication pathway that will contribute to shaping a successful intercultural business relationship.
Your intercultural business encounter – what to watch out for:
1. The obvious: Don’t underestimate the importance of cultural differences that may seem obvious to you. If you’re in another country, consider the fact that people may work different hours in different working conditions and enjoy a pace of life unlike what you are used to. A good example: The two to three hours break many private business, government offices and retail outlets enjoy in Spain at lunch time; certainly a peculiarity you may want to factor in when planning your meeting schedule.
2. Stereotypes: Try to avoid stereotypes at all costs as they can prevent you from learning new aspects about the country and understanding its different culture in a more appropriate way. Stereotypes are very hard to circumvent because they are often unconscious and experienced as an emotional reaction to our own cultural programming. But if you start by being aware of the damage stereotypes can cause to your relationships, you are one step towards establishing successful business partnerships.
3. Communication styles: Be aware that what for you may feel like a very positive style of communication, it can be seen as downright rude by another culture because words, phrases, tone of voice and body language are used in different ways across cultures. For example, even in countries that share the English language, the meaning of “yes” varies from “maybe, I’ll consider it” to “definitely so,” with many shades in between.
4. The importance of the spoken word: When your language is completely alien to the languages your business relations speak, you may want to consider hiring the services of a professional interpreter. These professionals are proficient in multiple languages and can translate the language you speak to your clients, customers, and partners and theirs to yours, facilitating accurate verbal and non-verbal communication.
5. The importance of the written word: Some cultures place more emphasis on written communication and only when something is written down do they have a strong belief in it. The margin for error here is massive, the need to have the correct information written down and in the style of the culture you are dealing with, may be the difference between one deal only, or a continuation of business. An accredited translator who is proficient in that language and who also has knowledge of the culture, will save you time and money in the long-term.
6. The importance of non-verbal communication: Non-verbal communication includes not only facial expressions and gestures; it also involves seating arrangements, personal distance, sense of time, silence and indirectness and other cultural nuances which can be quite challenging for you to detect and understand. For instance, in the United States there is a tendency to value efficiency and the expedient use of time. In some parts of Asia, time may feel like time has an unlimited continuity without boundaries. People may attend to many things happening at once and many conversations may take place in a moment, a process that may seem inefficient and confusing to those not accustomed to it.
The amount of personal space required from an individual may also vary from culture to culture. For example, people of the same gender in the Middle East stand much closer to each other than North Americans and Europeans, while people of the opposite gender tend to stand much further apart. Japanese males, for instance, will normally stand four or five feet apart when having a discussion while it’s likely that most Europeans and North Americans would consider having a discussion at this distance somewhat peculiar.
7. Gender differences: Certain cultures might find it inappropriate for a man and woman to be alone in a room together. This should not prevent meetings between you two, but it may determine where you schedule those meetings. Consider finding a windowed wall so that the room is clearly visible to other staff while you can still enjoy some privacy.
8. Different attitudes toward conflict: Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, while others view it as something to be avoided. While the tendency in Western countries is to encourage people to deal directly with conflicts, by contrast, in many Eastern countries, open conflict is experienced as embarrassing or demeaning. Generally, intercultural conflicts will require a great deal of empathy and discretion from both parties to work out their differences quietly. A written exchange might be the favoured means to address the conflict.
9. Different approaches to completing tasks: The way people move toward completing tasks in different cultures can vary dramatically because of a number of reasons including different access to resources, different judgments of the rewards associated with task completion, different notions of time, and varied ideas about how relationship-building and task-oriented work should go together. In Latin America, Middle East and Africa, there is a higher value placed in maintaining relationships and socializing than accomplishing tasks.
10. Different decision-making styles: The roles individuals play in decision-making vary widely from culture to culture. For example, in the U.S., decisions are frequently delegated while in many Southern European and Latin American countries, there is a strong value placed on holding decision-making responsibilities oneself.
11. Different attitudes toward disclosure: In some cultures, it’s not appropriate to be frank about emotions, about the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information. Questions that may seem natural to you may seem intrusive to others.
12. Different approaches to hierarchy: While Western nations may tend to equalise and minimise titles, other cultures may have a tendency to stratify and use titles to emphasize rank, status and links. The Japanese case is interesting because working hierarchies go as far as reflecting the well-entrenched hierarchical system of Japanese society by using the same words to informally refer to senior and junior employees as those used to describe the hierarchy of a human family. This ‘corporate family’ often stretches out to include numerous subsidiaries and even third-party suppliers who may have been doing business, in some cases, for generations.