07 Апр

Intercultural business communication


David Glass is well aware, effective communicators have many tools at their
disposal when they want to get across a message. Whether writing or speaking,
they know how to put together the words that will convey their meaning. They
reinforce their words with gestures and actions. They look you in the eye,
listen to what you have to say, and think about your feelings and needs. At the
same time, they study your reactions, picking up the nuances of your response
by watching your face and body, listening to your tone of voice, and evaluating
your words. They absorb information just as efficiently as they transmit it,
relying on both non-verbal and verbal cues.


most basic form of communication is non-verbal. Anthropologists theorize that
long before human beings used words to talk things over, our ancestors
communicated with one another by using their bodies. They gritted their teeth
to show anger; they smiled and touched one another to indicate affection. Al­though
we have come a long way since those primitive times, we still use non-verbal
cues to express superiority, dependence, dislike, respect, love, and other

Non-verbal communication differs from
verbal communication in funda­mental ways. For one thing, it is less
structured, which makes it more difficult to study. A person cannot pick up a
book on non-verbal language and master the vocabulary of gestures, expressions,
and inflections that are common in our culture. We don’t really know how people
learn non-verbal behaviour. No one teaches a baby to cry or smile, yet these
forms of self-expression are almost universal. Other types of non-verbal
communication, such as the meaning of colors and certain gestures, vary from
culture to culture.

communication also differs from verbal communication in terms of intent and
spontaneity. We generally plan our words. When we say «please open the
door,» we have a conscious purpose. We think about the message, if only
for a moment. But when we communicate non-verbally, we sometimes do so
unconsciously. We don’t mean to raise an eyebrow or blush. Those actions come
naturally. Without our consent, our emotions are written all over our faces.

non-verbal communication is important

non-verbal communication is often unplanned, it has more impact than verbal
communication. Non-verbal cues are especially important in con­veying feelings;
accounting for 93 percent of the emotional meaning that is exchanged in any

advantage of non-verbal communication is its reliability. Most people can
deceive us much more easily with their words than they can with their bodies.
Words are relatively easy to control; body language, facial expressions, and
vocal characteristics are not. By paying attention to these non-verbal cues, we
can detect deception or affirm a speaker’s honesty. Not surprisingly, we have
more faith in non-verbal cues than we do in verbal messages. If a person says
one thing but transmits a conflicting message non-verbally, we almost
invariably believe the non-verbal signal. To a great degree, then, an individu­al’s
credibility as a communicator depends on non-verbal messages.

communication is important for another reason as well: It can be efficient from
both the sender’s and the receiver’s standpoint. You can transmit a non-verbal
message without even thinking about it, and your audi­ence can register the
meaning unconsciously. By the same token, when you have a conscious purpose,
you can often achieve it more economically with a gesture than you can with
words. A wave of the hand, a pat on the back, a wink—all are streamlined
expressions of thought.

The functions of non-verbal

non-verbal communication can stand alone, it frequently works with speech. Our
words carry part of the message, and non-verbal signals carry the rest.
Together, the two modes of expression make a powerful team, augment­ing, reinforcing, and clarifying each

Experts in
non-verbal communication suggest that it have six specific func­tions:

• To provide
information, either consciously or unconsciously

• To regulate
the flow of conversation

• To express

• To qualify,
complement, contradict, or expand verbal messages

• To control or
influence others

• To facilitate specific tasks, such as teaching a
person to swing a golf club.

communication plays a role in business too. For one thing, it helps establish
credibility and leadership potential. If you can learn to manage the impression
you create with your body language, facial characteristics, voice, and
appearance, you can do a great deal to communicate that you are competent,
trustworthy, and dynamic. For example, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton has
developed a homespun style that puts people at ease, thereby help­ing them to
be more receptive, perhaps even more open.

if you can learn to read other people’s non-verbal messages, you will be able
to interpret their underlying attitudes and intentions more accurately. When
dealing with co-workers, customers, and clients, watch care­fully for small
signs that reveal how the conversation is going. If you aren’t having the
effect you want, check your words; then, if your words are all right, try to be
aware of the non-verbal meanings you are transmitting. At the same time, stay
tuned to the non-verbal signals that the other person is sending.


Although you
can express many things non-verbally, there are limits to what you can
communicate without the help of language. If you want to discuss past events,
ideas, or abstractions, you need words—symbols that stand for thoughts —
arranged in meaningful patterns. In the English language, we have a 750,000,
although most of us recog­nize only about 20,000 of them. To create a thought with
these words, we arrange them according to the rules of grammar, putting the
various parts of speech in the proper sequence.

then transmit the message in spoken or written form, hoping that someone will
hear or read what we have to say. Figure 1.1 shows how much time business
people devote to the various types of verbal communication. They use speaking
and writing to send messages; they use listening and read­ing to receive them.

and writing

When it comes to sending business messages, speaking
is more common than writing. Giving instructions, conducting interviews,
working in small groups, attending meetings, and making speeches are all
important activities. Even though writing may be less common, it is important
too. When you want to send a complex message of lasting significance, you will
probably want to put it in writing.

and reading

It’s important
to remem­ber that effective communication is a two-way street. People in
business spend more time obtaining information than transmitting it, so to do
their jobs effec­tively, they need good listening and reading skills.
Unfortunately, most of us are not very good listeners. Immediately after
hearing a ten-minute speech, we typically remember only half of what was said.
A few days later, we’ve forgotten three-quarters of the message. To some
extent, our listening prob­lems stem
from our education, or lack of it. We spend years learning to express our
ideas, but few of us ever take a course in listening.


of Business Communication

our reading skills often leave a good deal to be desired. Recent studies
indicate that approximately 38 percent of the adults in the United States have

trouble reading
the help-wanted ads in the newspaper, 14 percent cannot fill out a check
properly, 26 percent can’t figure out the deductions listed on their
paycheques, and 20 percent are functionally illiterate. Even those who do read
may not know how to read effectively. They have trouble extracting the
important points from a document, so they cannot make the most of the
information presented.

student are probably better at listening and reading than are many other
people, partly because they get so much practice. On the basis of our own
experience, no doubt realise that our listening and reading efficiency varies
tremendously, depending on how we approach the task. Obtaining and remembering
information takes a special effort.

listening and reading obviously differ, both require a similar approach. The
first step is to register the information, which means that you must tune out
distractions and focus your attention. You must then interpret and evaluate the
information, respond in some fashion, and file away the data for future

The most important part of this process is
interpretation and evaluation, which is no easy matter. While absorbing the
material, we must decide what is important and what isn’t. One approach is to
look for the main ideas and the most important supporting details, rather than
trying to remember everything we read or hear. If we can discern the structure of the material, we can
also understand the relationships among the ideas.


As Bill Davila
knows, the first step in learning to communicate with people from other
cultures is to become aware of what culture means. Our awareness of
intercultural differences is both useful and necessary in today’s world of


Person may not realise it, but he
belongs to several cultures. The most obvious is the culture he shares with all
other people who live in the same country. But this person also belongs to
other cultural groups, such as an ethnic group, a religious group, a fraternity
or sorority, or perhaps a profession that has its own special lan­guage and

what exactly is culture? It is useful to define culture as a
system of shared symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms
for behaviour. Thus all members of a culture have, and tend to act on, similar
assumptions about how people should think, behave, and communicate.

groups that exist within a major culture are more properly re­ferred to as subcultures.
Among groups that might be considered subcultures are Mexican Americans in East
Los Angeles, Mormons in Salt Lake City, and longshoremen in Montreal.
Subcultures without geographic boundaries can be found as well, such as
wrestling fans, Russian immigrants, and Harvard M.B.A.s .

and subcultures vary in several ways that affect intercultural communication:

Conditions in the culture may be stable or may be changing slowly or rapidly.

Cultures vary in the accessibility of information. In North America information
is contained in explicit codes,
including words, whereas in Japan a great deal of information is conveyed
implicitly, through body language, physical context, and the like.

Some cultures are made up of many diverse and disparate subcultures; others
tend to be more homogeneous.

Cultures vary in their attitudes toward outsiders. Some are openly hostile or
maintain a detached aloofness. Others
are friendly and co-operative toward strangers.

As you can see,
cultures vary widely. It’s no wonder that most of us need special training
before we can become comfortable with a culture other than our own.


faced with the need (or desire) to learn about another culture, we have two
main approaches to choose from. The first is to learn as much as possible—the
language, cultural background and history, social rules, and so on—about the
specific culture that you expect to deal with. The other is to develop general
skills that will help to adapt in any culture.

The first
approach, in-depth knowledge of a particular culture, certainly works. But
there are two drawbacks. One is that you will never be able to understand
another culture completely. No matter how much you study Ger­man culture, for
example, you will never be a German or share the experiences of having grown up
in Germany. Even if we could understand the culture completely, Germans might resent our assumption that we know everything
there is to know about them. The other drawback to immersing yourself in a
specific culture is the trap of overgeneralization, looking at people from a
cul­ture not as individuals with their own unique characteristics, but as
instances of Germans or Japanese or black Americans. The trick is to learn
useful gen­eral information but to be open to variations and individual

second approach to cultural learning, general development of intercul­tural
skills, is especially useful if we interact with people from a variety of
cultures or subcultures. Among the skills you need to learn are the following:

Taking responsibility for communication. Don’t
assume that it is the other person’s job to communicate with you.

Withholding judgment. Learn to
listen to the whole story and to accept differences in others.

Showing respect. Learn the ways
in which respect is communicated— through gestures, eye contact, and so on — in
various cultures.

Empathizing. Try to put yourself
in the other person’s shoes. Listen carefully to what the other person is
trying to communicate; imagine the person’s feelings and point of view.

Learn to control your
frustration when placed in an unfamiliar or confusing situation.

Looking beyond the superficial.
Don’t be distracted by such things as dress, appearance, or environmental

patient and persistent.
If you want to accomplish a task, don’t give up

your own cultural biases.
Learn to
identify when your as­sumptions are different from the other person’s.

Being flexible. Be prepared to
change your habits, preferences, and atti­tudes.

common ground.
Look for similarities to work from.

clear messages.
Make your verbal and non-verbal messages con­sistent.

Try things that will help you gain a better understanding of the other
person or culture.

your cultural sensitivity.
Learn about variations in customs and practices
so that you will be more aware of potential areas for miscommunication or

with the individual.
Avoid stereotyping and overgeneralization.


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?»

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

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

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.

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

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.

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 another.

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.

to oral communication

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.

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.

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).

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.

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

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?»

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.

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.

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.

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.

and status

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.

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.

Decision-making customs

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.

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.

of time

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.

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?

Japanese, knowing that North Americans are impatient, use time to their
advantage when negotiating with us. One of them expressed it this way:

Americans have one terrible weakness. If we make you wait long enough, you will
agree to anything.»

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

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.

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.

*   *

Behind The Scenes At Parker

as the Natives Do,

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 Arabia).

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.

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.

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.


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.

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

ethnocentric people are prone to stereotyping and prejudice:

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.

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.


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.


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.

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

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.;

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.

are just a few examples of the variations in customs that make intercultural
business so interesting.


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 sound un­natural.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


international transactions involve shipping and receiving goods. A num­ber of
special-purpose documents are required to handle these transactions:

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.


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.

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

• 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

• 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 too.

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

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