Intercultural business communication
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But Should You Eat the Roast Gorilla Hand
If offered, you should eat the roast gorilla hand—so says Roger E. Axtel, vice president of The Parker Pen Company. Axtel spent 18 years living and travelling in the 154 countries where Parker sells pens. He learned that communicating with foreign nationals demands more than merely learning their language. The gorilla hand (served rising from mashed yams) was prepared for a meal in honor of an American family-planning expert who was visiting a newly emerged African nation, and the guest of honor was expected to eat it, so he did. Learning the behaviour expected of you as you do business internationally can be daunting if not intimidating. Axtel recommends the following rules to help you get off to a good start without embarrassment.
Basic Rule #1: What's in a Name?
The first transaction between even ordinary citizens— and the first chance to make an impression for better or worse—is an exchange of names. In
America, there is not very much to get wrong. And even if you do, so what?
Not so elsewhere. In the Eastern Hemisphere, where name frequently denotes social rank or family status, a mistake can be an outright insult, and so can using someone's given name without permission. "What would you like me to call you?" is always the opening line of one overseas deputy director for an international telecommunications corporation. "Better to ask several times," he advises, "than to get it wrong." Even then, "I err on the side of formality." Another frequent traveler insists his company provide him with a list of key people he will meet—country by country, surnames underlined—to be memorized on the flight over.
Basic Rule #2: Eat, Drink, and Be Wary.
Away from home, eating is a language all its own. No words can match it for saying "glad to meet you ... glad to be doing business with you . . . glad to have-you here." Mealtime is no time for a thanks-but-no-thanks response.
Accepting what is on your plate is tantamount to accepting host, country, and company. So no matter how tough things may be to swallow, swallow.
Often what is offered constitutes your host jj country's proudest culinary achievements. Squeamishness comes not so much from the thing itself as from, your unfamiliarity with it. After all, an oyster has | remarkably the same look and consistency as a sheep’s eye (a delicacy in Saudi
Is there any polite way out besides the back door? Most business travelers say no, at least not before taking a few bites. It helps to slice unfamiliar food very thin. This way, you minimize the texture and the reminder of where it came from. Another useful dodge is not knowing what you are eating. What's for dinner? Don't ask.
Basic Rule #3: Clothes Can Make You or Break You
Wherever you are, you should not look out of place. Wear something you look natural in, something you know how to wear, and something that fits in with your surroundings. For example, a woman dressed in a tailored suit, even with high heels and flowery blouse, looks startlingly masculine in a country full of diaphanous saris. More appropriate attire might be a silky, loose-fitting dress in a bright color. With few exceptions, the general rule everywhere, whether for business, for eating out, or even for visiting people at home, is that you should be very buttoned up: conservative suit and tie for men, dress or skirt-suit for women.
Basic Rule #4: American Spoken Here— You Hope.
We should be grateful that so many people outside the United States speak
English. Even where Americans aren't understood, their language often is.
It's when we try to speak someone else's language that the most dramatic failures of communication seem to occur. At times, the way we speak is as misinterpreted as what we are trying to say; some languages are incomprehensible as pronounced by outsiders. But no matter how you twist most native tongues, some meaning gets through—or at least you get an A for effort even if it doesn't. Memorizing a toast or greeting nearly always serves to break the ice, if not the communication barrier.
* * *
Rules of etiquette may be formal or informal. Formal rules are the specifically taught "rights" and "wrongs" of how to behave in common situations, such as table manners at meals. Members of a culture can put into words the formal rule being violated. Informal social rules are much more difficult to identify and are usually learned by watching how people behave and then imitating that behaviour. Informal rules govern how men and women are supposed to behave, how and when people may touch each other, when it is appropriate to use a person's first name, and so on. Violations of these rules cause a great deal of discomfort to the members of the culture, but they usually cannot verbalize what it is that bothers them.
Although language and cultural differences are significant barriers to communication, these problems can be resolved if people maintain an open mind. Unfortunately, however, many of us have an ethnocentric reaction to people from other cultures—that is, we judge all other groups according to our own standards.
When we react ethnocentrically, we ignore the distinctions between our own culture and the other person's culture. We assume that others will react the same way we do, that 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.
TIPS FOR COMMUNICATING WITH PEOPLE FROM OTHER CULTURES
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.
LEARNING ABOUT A CULTURE
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 country's weather conditions, health-care facilities, money, transportation, communications, and customs regulations.
Also find out about a country's 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, don't 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 you're dealing with in
Africa. They're 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; it's an insult to refuse hospitality of any kind. But don't be too quick to accept, either. A ritual refusal ("I don't want to put you to any trouble" or "I don't 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.
HANDLING WRITTEN COMMUNICATION
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
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 reader's 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 preliminary draft for comments before delivering the final report.
Many international transactions involve shipping and receiving goods. A number of special-purpose documents are required to handle these transactions: price quotations, invoices, bills of lading, time drafts, letters of credit, correspondence with international freight forwarders, packing lists, shipping documents, and collection documents. Many of these documents are standard forms; you simply fill in the data as clearly and accurately as possible in the spaces provided. Samples are ordinarily available in a company's files if it frequently does business abroad. If not, you may obtain descriptions of the necessary documentation from the
United States Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration,
Washington, D.C., 20230. (For Canadian information, contact the Department of External Affairs, Trade Division, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A OG2.)
When preparing forms, pay particular attention to the method you use for stating weights and measures and money values. The preferred method is to use the other country's system of measurement and its currency values for documenting the transaction; however, if your company uses U.S. or Canadian weights, measures, and dollars, you should follow that policy. Check any conversion calculations carefully.
HANDLING ORAL COMMUNICATION
Oral communication with people from other cultures is more difficult to handle than written communication, but it can also be more rewarding, from both a business and a personal standpoint. Some transactions simply cannot be handled without face-to-face contact.
When engaging in oral communication, be alert to the possibilities for misunderstanding. Recognize that you may be sending signals you are unaware of and that you may be misreading cues sent by the other person. To overcome language and cultural barriers, follow these suggestions:
• Keep an open mind. Don't stereotype the other person or react with
preconceived ideas. Regard the person as an individual first, not as a
representative of another culture.
• Be alert to the other person's customs. Expect him or her to have different values, beliefs, expectations, and mannerisms.
• Try to be aware of unintentional meanings that may be read into your message. Clarify your true intent by repetition and examples.
• Listen carefully and patiently. If you do not understand a comment, ask the person to repeat it.
• Be aware that the other person's body language may mislead you.
Gestures and expressions mean different things in different cultures. Rely more on words than on non-verbal communication to interpret the message.
• Adapt your style to the other person's. If the other person appears to be direct and straightforward, follow suit. If not, adjust your behaviour to match.
• At the end of a conversation, be sure that you and the other person both agree on what has been said and decided. Clarify what will happen next.
• If appropriate, follow up by writing a letter or memo summarizing the conversation and thanking the person for meeting with you.
In short, take advantage of the other person's presence to make sure that
your message is getting across and that you understand his or her message
Speeches are both harder and simpler to deal with than personal conversations. On the one hand, speeches don't provide much of an opportunity for exchanging feedback; on the other, you may either use a translator or prepare your remarks in advance and have someone who is familiar with the culture check them over. If you use a translator, however, be sure to use someone who is familiar not only with both languages but also with the terminology of your field of business. Experts recommend that the translator be given a copy of the speech at least a day in advance. Furthermore, a written translation given to members of the audience to accompany the English speech can help reduce communication barriers. The extra effort will be appreciated and will help you get your point across.
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