Intercultural business communication

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hat 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.


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.


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 countrys weather conditions, health-care facilities, money, transportation, communications, and customs regulations.

Also find out about a countrys 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 pocket.;

doing so is considered gauche.

In Pakistan, dont be surprised when businesspeople excuse themselves in the midst of a meeting to conduct prayers. Moslems pray five times a day.

Allow plenty of time to get to know the people youre dealing with in Africa. Theyre 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; its an insult to refuse hospitality of any kind. But dont be too quick to accept, either. A ritual refusal ("I dont want to put you to any trouble" or "I dont 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.


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 sound unnatural.

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 disappointing you.

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 readers 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 prelimina