Crossing cultural borders: How businesses can bridge the gap

By Anne Sexton - Last update


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Phillip Khan-Panni, MBA, FPSA and ATM, discusses the many reasons why cross-cultural training is important to every business.

The whiskey liqueur, Irish Mist, is sold around the world, but had limited success in Germany. Clairol’s curling iron, the Mist Stick, also failed in that country. The reason was the same for both products – mist is German slang for dung. Unsurprisingly, there is not a great demand for a Dung Stick, or for Irish Manure!

Linguistic errors such as these can be costly. However, there are also other less obvious pitfalls in doing business with people from other cultures.

Slang and idiomatic language can cause misunderstanding

A North American textile manufacturer was deep in negotiations with a Japanese buyer. On the last lap, the Japanese chief negotiator ran through his checklist of points agreed. As he raised each point, the American negotiator said, “No problem.”

The American he noticed mounting tension in the buyer, who eventually shut his notebook and rose to leave. “What’s the matter?” asked the American, dumbfounded. The junior members of the Japanese team said, “We are concerned that there are so many difficulties over all the points we thought had been agreed.”

When the American said, “No problem”, he meant “That’s not a problem.” However, the Japanese heard, “No (comma) that IS a problem.”

Native speakers of English commonly use negative terms to express a positive idea, but non-native speakers of English learn to use positive terms for positive ideas, and negative terms for negative ideas.

Cross-cultural understanding is necessary at home as well as abroad

An official analysis of cross-border business failures listed “Ignoring cultural differences” as one of the top three causes. So let me offer some practical ideas on how to understand and cope with cultural differences. These are for when doing business abroad, and also when dealing with other cultures in Ireland.

Never forget that cross-cultural understanding is necessary at home as well as abroad. You have multi-cultural customers on your doorstep and probably multi-cultural staff as well. It is just as important to deal appropriately with them as with business partners in other countries.

Ireland has a significant numbers of foreigners. They often have different attitudes and values. Therefore, for harmony and efficiency it is important to know how to cope with difference. So, what exactly is culture? Very simply, it is the way we do things around here. It has both positive and negative effects. Positive because it drives the things you do, giving you confidence that you are doing it right. However it can also be negative because it can cause you to resist the way others do things, if their style is different from yours.

You also need to be aware of how other nations are influenced by their own culture, how they use language, and what they find acceptable.

Getting it wrong…

Amazingly, some large international companies have got cross-cultural awareness badly wrong over the years. Let’s have a look at a few famous examples.

When Electrolux first entered the US market, their advertising repeated the slogan they had used in Europe: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”. Not surprisingly, it failed to excite the Americans!

Pepsi’s first venture into the Chinese market saw their slogan, “Come alive with Pepsi” translated into Chinese as, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

Coca Cola introduced their 2 litre bottles into Spain, only to find that Spanish fridges were too small – and the Spanish prefer to keep their drinks in the fridge.

Clearly, what works for you may not work for other nations. Our culture creates our expectations, and problems arise when those are not met. In fact, the greatest cause of breakdown in relationships, both business and personal, is when expectations are not met.

When international travel was limited, and foreigners were a novelty, it was forgivable to make mistakes in dealing with them. In an increasingly competitive world, those who cope best with cultural differences will have the edge.

A simple guide to getting it right

There are, however, over 200 different cultures around the world, so do you have to learn all of them? Fortunately, no. Having worked in over a dozen different countries, guiding business leaders and diplomats in cross-cultural communication, I have devised a simple six-point plan, which can be reduced to three keywords to act as your permanent guide.

1. Business presentations

Although the international business language is English, Norwegian English is not the same as Japanese English, and neither version is the English you speak.

I have identified 10 key elements in business presentations and created models to show the typical expectations of different nations. For instance, Americans and the Irish like to open with a joke, but in several countries that would disqualify you right away.

2. Face is fundamental

This is true in every Eastern country and a few others as well. It means acknowledging the status of others and never causing them embarrassment.

A European company was doing a deal in China. At the eleventh hour the Chinese wanted to renegotiate some of the terms. The European decided to ‘sort it out man-to-man’ with his Chinese counterpart. He lost the deal. Such confrontation is anathema to the Chinese, and causes loss of face. The European should have used an intermediary. The key to saving face is to have (and show) respect.

3. Relationships and trust

Many nations prefer to spend time building relationships before doing business. That is because this is how trust is established. Their thinking is: why do business without trust? One source of irritation across borders is that a Yes does not always mean Yes. Often it is just a polite way of avoiding No. Sometimes it is simply an invitation to continue. Don’t take Yes at face value.

4. Etiquette

When dealing with a foreign company or person, it is essential to find out how the other nation regards formality, terms of address (Mister, Doctor, Herr, Signora, etc. ) and business cards.

Always treat the other person’s business card with respect. Do not place cards in your back pocket. You should also avoid blowing your nose or touching your face with your right hand, and then offering that same hand to be shaken.

5. Pace

My friend Basil is Indian, but complained that, in China, he was frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations. He was behaving like an American, wanting to jet in, do the deal and fly out two hours later. The Chinese were aware of his impatience, so they dragged their feet in order to wring further concessions out of him. It is smarter to adapt to their pace. Equally, in dealing with Americans and some northern Europeans, you may have to speed up.

6. Motivation

As in all business dealings, the other party must want to do business with you. You should therefore start by finding out what they want, and always look for win/win solutions.

Finally, the three words that should act as filters for your attitude are: Respect, Trust and Face.

If you show respect, you will be forgiven if you make a cultural error. If you build trust, the relationship will prosper. And if you learn to understand face, and never cause anyone to lose it, you will gain the respect – and perhaps the business – of your overseas customers.

My company provides training in the skills to break down barriers, communicate more effectively, build trust, develop relationships and open minds to the benefits of coping with difference in business. In practical terms, this translates as better business skills, and greater success in sales.

Phillip Khan-Panni FPSA is a polished wordsmith, Honorary Fellow and co-Founder of the Professional Speaking Association with a business background in advertising, sales management, newspaper publishing and direct marketing. He has eight published books on communication skills.


Anne Sexton

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