Intercultural business communication
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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 we're doing business in London, we obviously won't 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, we’ll 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 we're 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 doesn't 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.
More significant problems 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
Sometimes the translations aren't 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 it's easier to write in a foreign language than to
conduct a conversation. Even if the other person is speaking English, you're 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 "doesn't 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. Don't be afraid to ask, "Is that clear?" and be sure to check the listener's comprehension through specific questions. Encourage the listener to ask questions.
• Rephrase your sentence when necessary. If someone doesn't seem to understand what you have said, choose simpler words; don't just repeat the sentence in a louder voice.
• Don't 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 you'll 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 store's 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 don't. 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.
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 "Here's 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 Germany attaches one
meaning to time; an executive from Latin America, Ethiopia, or Japan
attaches another. Let's say that a salesperson from Chicago calls on a
client in Mexico City. After spending 30 minutes in the outer office, the
person from Chicago feels angry and insulted, assuming, "This client must
attach a very low priority to my visit to keep me waiting half an hour." In
fact, the Mexican client does not mean to imply anything at all by this
delay. To the Mexican, a wait of 30 minutes is a matter of course.
Or let's say that a New Yorker is trying to negotiate a deal in Ethiopia.
This is an important deal, and the New Yorker assumes that the Ethiopians will give the matter top priority and reach a decision quickly. Not so. In
Ethiopia, important deals take a long, long time. After all, if a deal is important, it should be given much careful thought, shouldn't it?
The Japanese, knowing that North Americans are impatient, use time to their advantage when negotiating with us. One of them expressed it this way:
"You Americans have one terrible weakness. If we make you wait long enough, you will agree to anything."
Concepts of personal space
The classic story of a conversation between a North American and a Latin
American is that the interaction may begin at one end of a hallway but end up at the other, with neither party aware of having moved. During the interaction, the Latin American instinctively moves closer to the North
American, who in turn instinctively steps back, resulting in an intercultural dance across the floor. Like time, space means different things in different cultures. North Americans stand about five feet apart when conducting a business conversation. To an Arab or a Latin American, this distance is uncomfortable. In meetings with North Americans, they move a little closer. We assume they are pushy and react negatively, although we don't know exactly why.
Gestures help us clarify confusing messages, so differences in body language are a major source of misunderstanding. We may also make the mistake of assuming that a non-American who speaks English has mastered the body language of our culture as well. It therefore pays to learn some basic differences in the ways people supplement their words with body movement.
Take the signal for no. North Americans shake their heads back and forth; the Japanese move their right hands; Sicilians raise their chins. Or take eye contact. North Americans read each other through eye contact. They may assume that a person who won't meet our gaze is evasive and dishonest. But in many parts of Latin America, keeping your eyes lowered is a sign of respect. It's also a sign of respect among many black Americans, which some schoolteachers have failed to learn. When they scold their black students, saying "Look at me when I'm talking to you," they only create confusion for the children.
Sometimes people from different cultures misread an intentional signal, and sometimes they overlook the signal entirely or assume that a meaningless gesture is significant. For example, an Arab man indicates a romantic interest in a woman by running a hand backward across his hair; most Americans would dismiss this gesture as meaningless. On the other hand, an Egyptian might mistakenly assume that a Westerner sitting with the sole of his or her shoe showing is offering a grave insult.
Social behaviour and manners
What is polite in one country may be considered rude in another. In Arab countries, for example, it is impolite to take gifts to a man's wife but acceptable to take gifts to his children. In Germany, giving a woman a red rose is considered a romantic invitation, inappropriate if you are trying to establish a business relationship with her. In India, you might be invited to visit someone's home "any time." Being reluctant to make an unexpected visit, you might wait to get a more definite invitation. But your failure to take the Indian literally is an insult, a sign that you do not care to develop the friendship.
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Behind The Scenes At Parker Pen
Do as the Natives Do,
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