International Business and Communication

How overcoming cultural differences in communication benefits business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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