International Business and Communication

How overcoming cultural differences in communication benefits business.

Today companies trade goods and provide services to global customers. Many companies have facilities in different countries and most companies, small and large, work already with a highly diverse, international workforce.

Communication is clearly the enabler of any kind of cooperation and business activities - nationally and internationally. Different cultures have particular business communication styles, well accepted and adopted by their population. Other cultures have different ways to conduct business and with that, use different styles to open, discuss, negotiate and close business deals and maintain business relations.

What is the best way to communicate for people of different cultural background? The potential customer's style or the one that relates to the language used during the communication? Unfortunately there is no clear answer to this question.

Specific communication styles have developed over long periods based on cultural values. Even with the wish to "speak the language of the customer", these values cannot just be set aside when writing or talking to people of other cultural influence.

Two little anecdotes show the difficulties in communicating internationally. A Japanese corporation hired a professional trainer to teach their people how to communicate with Western customers. The Japanese style uses passive wording, perceived by Western customers "as if they do not want to make business with us". Nothing was further from the truth; the Japanese corporation was of course very interested in Western business. I witnessed another case of misinterpreted correspondence first hand, when a colleague received an email from another colleague in Europe. When reading it he suddenly murmured: "Why is he yelling at me?" I asked him what he meant and he responded that the colleague's use of exclamation marks would be equal to yelling at him. A look at the email confirmed what I thought: the exclamation marks underlined great importance - not to scold the reader. Using the exclamation mark that way is common practice in the country of the writer. But the author wrote in English - so should it not be natural using Anglo-American writing styles and rules?

We will have more fruitful interpersonal and business experience, if:

  1. Individuals writing in their second or third language, avoid phrases, formulations and special punctuations that are common in their language but might be unknown or sometimes even offending in other cultural regions. Keep it as simple as possible.
  2. Receivers of emails not written in the writer's mother-tongue should read them with extra tolerance. The writer took great efforts to learn this language, but do not expect impeccable wording. Try to understand what the writer had in mind.
  3. Openness and willingness to understand different cultures and how they express themselves in business communication, bears a huge potential of additional possibilities. There is benefit in learning the ways of other cultures. Adapting some of them may even give the own company a head start.
While we should adhere to a minimum standard and etiquette in international business communication, it can never be perfect. Good ideas and intentions should not be paled by a curtain of ignorance and limitations. With the global reach of the Internet, every company can present itself as an international player. Let's play by international rules - and win big. Deiton

Wolfgang "Deiton" Damm can build on over 25 years of management experience in different industries. With engineering and business degrees, Deiton embraces managerial, organizational, marketing and technical disciplines. He is author of a book and patent holder. Deiton writes articles and blogs about better business practices.

International Business Etiquette

"To have respect for ourselves guides our morals; and to have a deference for others governs our manners." Lawrence Sterne, Irish novelist & satirist (1713 - 1768)

Etiquette, or good manners, is an important part of our day to day lives. Whether we realise it or not we are always subconsciously adhering to rules of etiquette. Much of the time these are unwritten; for example giving up your seat to a lady or elderly person, queuing for a bus in an orderly fashion according to who arrived first or simply saying "please" or "thank you". All are examples of etiquette; complex unwritten rules that reflect a culture's values.

Etiquette accomplishes many tasks. However, the one noteworthy function that etiquette does perform is that it shows respect and deference to another. By doing so it maintains good interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, it could be argued, etiquette is about making sure that when people mix together there are rules of interaction in place that ensure their communication, transaction or whatever it may be goes smoothly.

We all now how we or others feel when a lack of etiquette is shown. If someone jumps the queue, does not thank you for holding the door open for them or forgets to shake your hand, we naturally feel disrespected and perturbed.

International Business Etiquette

Keeping the above points in mind, now consider the complexities of working on the international stage. Modern business is global and demands people travel to foreign countries and mix with foreign clients, colleagues or customers. Each one of those cultures will also have their own etiquette rules, many of them unwritten. When two or more different cultures mix, it is easy for small etiquette mistakes to be made that could have negative consequences. Just as you may have felt annoyed when a foreign businessman did not shake your hands upon greeting you, imagine how your Chinese client must have felt when you wrote on his business card or your Indian colleague reacted when you flatly rejected an offer of a meal. Sometimes, not understanding the etiquette of another culture means you show a lack of manners and as Lawrence Sterne said, a lack of deference. This can and does lead to soured relationships, lost deals and in the end poor business results. Anyone working on the international stage needs to understand international business etiquette.

International business etiquette manifests in many shapes and sizes. Throughout the world people from different cultures have varying etiquette rules around areas such as personal space, communication, gift giving, food, business meetings and much more. For those wanting to make a good impression and understanding of international business etiquette is crucial. By way of introducing some of the key areas within international business etiquette we shall look at the following common areas...

Business Card Etiquette:

When you exchange business cards (even if you exchange them) do you simply pass it over and forget about it? In many countries the business card has certain etiquette rules. For example in the Arab world you would never give or receive a business card with your left hand. In China and Japan you should try and use both hands to give and receive. In addition it is always good etiquette to examine the card and make a positive comment on it. Whereas in the UK it may be OK to sling the business card into a pocket, in many countries you should always treat it with much more respect such as storing it in a business card holder.

The Etiquette of Personal Space:

How close do you stand to people? Is it impolite to touch somebody? What about gender differences? In the Middle East you may get very touchy-feely with the men, yet one should never touch a woman. A slap on the back may be OK in Mexico but in China it is a serious no-no. Touch someone on the head in Thailand or Indonesia and you would have caused great insult. Without an appreciation of international business etiquette, these things would never be known.

The Etiquette of Gift Giving:

Many countries such as China and Japan have many etiquette rules surrounding the exchange of business gifts. International business etiquette allows you an insight into what to buy, how to give a gift, how to receive, whether to open in front of the giver and what gifts not to buy. Great examples of gifts to avoid are anything alcoholic in Muslim countries, anything with four of anything in Japan and clocks in China.

The Etiquette of Communication:

Some cultures like to talk loudly (US and Germany), some softly (India and China); some speak directly (Holland and Denmark) others indirectly (UK and Japan); some tolerate interrupting others while speaking (Brazil) others not (Canada); some are very blunt (Greece) and some very flowery (Middle East). All will believe the way they are communicating is fine, but when transferred into an international context this no longer applies. Without the right international business etiquette it is easy to offend.

By way of conclusion we can state that etiquette helps maintain good relations with people. When dealing with people from a shared culture, everyone knows the rules and there is not much to think about. Those that lack etiquette are branded as uncouth and rude. However, this is not the same when working on the international stage. Someone may very well come across as being rude through a lack of etiquette but this may be because in their culture that behaviour is normal. As a result international business etiquette is a key skill for those wanting to be successful when working abroad. Through a great appreciation and understanding of others' cultures you build stronger and longer lasting business relationships.