When doing business abroad, how well you understand your customer’s culture can give you a competitive advantage. But just what is your level of cultural awareness, and is it benefiting or hurting your business?

The Definition of Culture

Culture is defined as a collection of values, beliefs, behaviors, customs, and attitudes that distinguish a society. It is learned and interrelated, defines group membership and differences, and can’t be ignored. A society’s culture reflects its values and attitudes.

Today, cultural perspectives are at work in just about every endeavor, including hiring, firing, compensation, etiquette, negotiating, office setting, strategy, and personal and business relationships. And, in short, if a foreign customer’s culture is not respected, your business relationship is likely to suffer.

What’s Acceptable Here May Be Disastrous There

Attitudes and societal values differ considerably throughout the world. In fact, acceptable behavior in one cultural setting may be viewed as immoral, unethical, or rude in another. For example, “kickbacks,” while expected in some developing countries may land you in jail in others. And nepotism, while prevalent in some areas of the world, is frowned upon in others, since it may result in incompetence and inefficiencies.

Many cultures have specific customs worth noting. In India, for instance, since the left hand is considered unclean, the right hand should be used for eating, giving and accepting. In Malaysia, pointing with the index finger is considered impolite; it is more appropriate to point with the thumb of the right hand with the fingers folded under.

Furthermore, in France, a firm and pumping handshake is considered uncultured, while in the Middle East, you should not point your finger at someone or show the soles of your feet when seated. The soles are considered unclean and offensive.

Time Is Relative

Many cultures also view time and status very differently. For example, Germans tend to be very punctual, paying much attention to the small hands on a clock. To the contrary, Latin Americans and Italians tend to have a more relaxed sense of time.

This means that a German business person may arrive at 3:50 for a 4:00 appointment, while a Latin American business person may arrive at 4:15. The problem: the value of the meeting may come into question.

Work and Relationship Building

Work standards or ethics also are relative. Generally, U.S. and German business people are considered driven and deterministic. Yet, this can lead to poor results.

When abroad, U.S. business people generally prefer to get right down to business. To others, this is considered premature and does not help establish a friendship — a prerequisite to doing business in many countries. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the initial business meeting is designed to establish a relationship and build mutual trust. As such, business usually is not even discussed.

Pay Attention to Status

For those doing business in Japan, it is imperative to know that Japanese culture is defined in hierarchical terms with the good of the group reigning supreme. In this case, emphasis is placed on seniority and group well-being instead of individual performance and needs. As a result, seeking a decision from an individual without a group consensus is extremely difficult.

Similarly, status, which can identified by titles on business cards, signifies much importance throughout Asia. When deciding who to address or determining the level of formality to use when speaking to an individual, definitely consider his/her status.

Body Politics Matter

In addition to specific expressed customs, nonverbal communication is also very important because the meaning behind gestures and facial expressions can vary significantly. For example, nodding “yes” in the United States is equivalent to “no” in Bulgaria. Overall, body posture, positioning, and eye contact may influence how one is perceived.

Take for instance the following example: the joining of the thumb and forefinger in a circle while extending the other three fingers means “OK” in the United States. However, in Malta, this symbol signifies homosexuality; in Japan, money; in France, inadequacy; and in many parts of Eastern Europe, vulgarity.

When Yes Means No

In many cultures, employees sometimes will say yes to their ability and willingness to complete a task even though they have no intention of doing so. Why? In the employees’ eyes, saying no to a manager may be considered disrespectful or rude. Or, the employee may feel compelled to say yes for fear of losing face.

Thus, the employee would rather lie than seem incapable of performance. Understanding the motive behind the yes may help improve a poor working relationship.

The Importance of Speaking Their Language

One typical obstacle to building a successful international business relationship is ethnocentric behavior. This often is perceived as arrogance with little desire to accept or adapt to the host country’s culture, including communicating in the host’s country’s language.

When U.S. firms establish foreign subsidiaries, some tend to implement a policy of “one size fits all,” and don’t consider different cultural modes of doing business. This ethnocentric behavior is often regarded by host country employees, managers, and suppliers as rude, and is perceived as an unwillingness to respect the host country’s culture and standards.

To counter this behavior, it is extremely wise for U.S. business people to speak the host country’s language whenever possible. Even simply attempting to communicate in the host country’s native tongue can work wonders in demonstrating mutual respect and a willingness to work together.

Be Culturally Sensitive

U.S. corporations operating in foreign countries often act as agents of change, bringing new operating standards, state-of-the-art technology, values, and best business practices — which in turn, may contribute to the improvement of the host country’s social, labor, and environmental conditions. This, no doubt, can generate very positive public relations for U.S. firms, and go a long way toward building positive and long-lasting relationships.

However, not being culturally sensitive can certainly result in missed opportunities. In summary, a sound understanding of your foreign customer’s culture will help maximize your business successes, and minimize your business failures.

This article appeared in April 2001. (CB)

John Manzella
About The Author John Manzella [Full Bio]
John Manzella, founder of the ManzellaReport.com, is a world-recognized speaker, author of several books, and a nationally syndicated columnist on global business, trade policy, labor, and economic trends. His latest book is Global America: Understanding Global and Economic Trends and How To Ensure Competitiveness.

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