Intercultural business communication

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ut 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 communication:

Stability. Conditions in the culture may be stable or may be changing slowly or rapidly.

Complexity. Cultures vary in the accessibility of information. In North America information is contained in explicit codes, including words, whereas in Japan a great deal of information is conveyed implicitly, through body language, physical context, and the like.

Composition. Some cultures are made up of many diverse and disparate subcultures; others tend to be more homogeneous.

Acceptance. Cultures vary in their attitudes toward outsiders. Some are openly hostile or maintain a detached aloofness. Others are friendly and co-operative toward strangers.

As you can see, cultures vary widely. Its no wonder that most of us need special training before we can become comfortable with a culture other than our own.




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 possiblethe language, cultural background and history, social rules, and so onabout 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 differences.

The second approach to cultural learning, general development of intercultural skills, is especially useful if we interact with people from a variety of cultures or subcultures. Among the skills you need to learn are the following:

Taking responsibility for communication. Dont assume that it is the other persons 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 persons shoes. Listen carefully to what the other person is trying to communicate; imagine the persons feelings and point of view.

Tolerating ambiguity. Learn to control your frustration when placed in an unfamiliar or confusing situation.

Looking beyond the superficial. Dont be distracted by such things as dress, appearance, or environmental discomforts.

Being patient and persistent. If you want to accomplish a task, dont give up easily.

Recognizing your own cultural biases. Learn to identify when your assumptions are different from the other persons.

Being flexible. Be prepared to change your habits, preferences, and attitudes.

Emphasizing common ground. Look for similarities to work from.

Sending clear messages. Make your verbal and non-verbal messages consistent.

Taking risks. Try things that will help you gain a better understanding of the other person or culture.

Increasing your cultural sensitivity. Learn about variations in customs and practices so that you will be more aware of potential areas for miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Dealing with the individual. Avoid stereotyping and overgeneralization.



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 were doing business in London, we obviously wont 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, well 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 were 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 doesnt appear to be very practical at first glance; however, many multinational companies do, in fact, have language training programs for their foreign employees. Tenneco, for example, instituted an English-language training program for its Spanish-speaking employees in a New Jersey plant. The classes concentrated on practical English for use on the job. According to the company, these classes were a success: Accidents and grievances declined, and productivity improved.

In general, the magnitude of the language barrier depends on whether you are writing or speaking. Written communication is generally easier to handle.



Barriers to written communication

One survey of 100 companies engaged in international business revealed that between 95 and 99 percent of their business letters to other countries are written in English. Moreover, 59 percent of the respondents reported that the foreign letters they receive are usually written in English, although they also receive letters written in Spanish and French. Other languages are rare in international business 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.

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