Intercultural business communication

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roblems 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 another.

Sometimes the translations arent 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 its easier to write in a foreign language than to conduct a conversation. Even if the other person is speaking English, youre 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 "doesnt cut the mustard," chances are that you will fail to communicate. Even when the words make sense, their meanings may differ according to the situation. For example, suppose that you are dining with a German woman who speaks English quite well. You inquire, "More bread?" She says, "Thank you," so you pass the bread. She looks confused, then takes the breadbasket and sets it down without taking any. In German, thank you (danke) can also be used as a polite refusal. If the woman had wanted more bread, she would have used the word please (bitte in German).

When speaking in English to those for whom English is a second language, follow these simple guidelines:

Try to eliminate "noise." Pronounce words clearly, and stop at distinct punctuation points. Make one point at a time.

Look for feedback. Be alert to glazed eyes or signs of confusion in your listener. Realise that nods and smiles do not necessarily mean understanding. Dont be afraid to ask, "Is that clear?" and be sure to check the listeners comprehension through specific questions. Encourage the listener to ask questions.

Rephrase your sentence when necessary. If someone doesnt seem to understand what you have said, choose simpler words; dont just repeat the sentence in a louder voice.

Dont talk down to the other person. Americans tend to overenunciate and to "blame" the listener for lack of comprehension. It is preferable to use phrases such as "Am I going too fast?" rather than "Is this too difficult for you?"

Use objective, accurate language. Americans tend to throw around adjectives such as fantastic and fabulous, which foreigners consider unreal and overly dramatic. Calling something a "disaster" will give rise to images of war and death; calling someone an "idiot" or a "prince" may be taken literally.

Let other people finish what they have to say. If you interrupt, you may miss something important. And youll 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 stores Hispanic customers.


Religion and values

Although North America is a melting pot of people with different religions and values, the predominant influence in this culture is the Puritan ethic: If you work hard and achieve success, you will find favour in the eyes of God. They tend to assume that material comfort is a sign of superiority, that the rich are a little bit better than the poor, that people who work hard are better than those who dont. They believe that money solves many problems. They assume that people from other cultures share their view, that they dislike poverty and value hard work. In fact, many societies condemn materialism and prize a carefree life-style.

As a culture, they are goal-oriented. They want to get the work done in the most efficient manner, and they assume that everyone else does too. They think they are improving things if they can figure out a way for two people using modern methods to do the same work as four people using the "old way." But in countries like India and Pakistan, where unemployment is extremely high, creating jobs is more important than getting the work done efficiently. Executives in these countries would rather employ four workers than two.


Roles and status

Culture dictates the roles people play, including who communicates with whom, what they communicate, and in what way. In many countries, for example, women still do not play a very prominent role in business. As a result, female executives from American firms may find themselves sent off to eat in a separate room with the wives of Arab businessmen, while the men all eat dinner together.

Concepts of status also differ, and as a consequence, people establish their credibility in different ways. North Americans, for example, send status signals that reflect materialistic values. The big boss has the corner office on the top floor, deep carpets, an expensive desk, and handsome accessories. The most successful companies are located in the most prestigious buildings. In other countries, status is communicated in other ways. For example, the highest-ranking executives in France sit in the middle of an open area, surrounded by lower-level employees. In the Middle East, fine possessions are reserved for the home, and business is conducted in cramped and modest quarters. An American executive who assumes that these office arrangements indicate a lack of status is making a big mistake.



Decision-making customs

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 "Heres 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 Germ