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Communicating across cultures: The key to successful international business communication

Book cover

by Phillip Khan-Panni and Deborah Swallow, howtobooks, 2003.


A German/Swedish merger illustrates how cultural differences can make things go wrong. Clear guidance is given on what to do and what to avoid when working in another culture, bearing in mind the effect of different and wide-ranging mindsets.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in September 2003)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

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Picture the scene: A merger has just taken place between two top companies, one German and one Swedish, which has created a major European player in its industry. Senior management from both sides spend an intense week in June, with the aid of some of Europe’s best outside facilitators, hammering out (in English) a set of management guidelines for the new entity. The debate is sometimes fraught but eventually the draft of the new guidelines is agreed upon. The chief executive (a German) joins the group and emphasises the importance, because of forthcoming business developments, of immediately starting the consultation process with the rest of the new company’s management and gaining their full agreement before the Autumn. There is shock and disbelief on the part of the Germans when the Swedish representatives say that this is impossible. They patiently explain to their German counterparts that the Swedes always take their annual holidays in July and nothing can be done before August - when the Germans will go on vacation. Nobody had thought about the potential impact of something as simple as differences in holiday timing and yet it threatens to derail what has been an expensive and otherwise sophisticated and successful process.

If communication between two neighbouring European countries (who in this case actually have many cultural similarities) can go wrong on something so simple and factual, imagine the potential for misunderstanding when geographical and cultural distance are much greater and more subtle issues are under discussion. Doing business with another country, the authors of this book quite rightly contend, means entering another world where you have to learn new rules. To do so, you need patience, preparation and an open mind. Their book aims to provide a swift insight into diverse cultural patterns and to help with preparation for cross-cultural business encounters.

These days cross-border travel is commonplace for business or leisure and cultural diversity is in our midst at home. However, as the authors point out, our understanding of other cultures has lagged behind our ability to access them. The consequences can be serious. There are many examples (like that above) of the sort of miscommunication that commonly occurs between people whose thinking is limited by their own national borders. The authors are cross-cultural consultants who train businessmen and diplomats in cross-cultural communication. They talk about the split between East and West to bring cultural differences into sharp relief, where ‘East’ is a shorthand for Indian, Chinese, Japanese or African and Middle Eastern (and sometimes southern European) ways of doing things. Such differences, they say, cause us to communicate with different stride patterns, and even to march in totally different directions.

The first part of the book examines how to bridge the communication gap.

Speaking louder and slower is not enough

We all process information differently. A foreigner may understand perfectly well what you are saying. Their seemingly blank reaction may mean, however, that they are assessing your message for its credibility or that they come from a culture where it is unsophisticated to show surprise. There are some important keys to connecting with people whose first language is not English. Amongst others, these include:

  • Acknowledging your own assumptions.
  • Recognising ‘invisible’ differences.
  • Considering alternatives.
  • Avoiding generalisations.
  • Being sensitive to non-verbal cues.
  • Listening for what lies behind what is being said.
  • Remembering ‘face’ - always avoid making the other person feel uncomfortable, especially in front of other people.

East vs. West

The diversity in attitudes to social behaviour among countries can cause much friction. The main points of difference between East and West include attitudes to time and timekeeping, agreements, humour, respect, seniority, personal space and emphasis on individual or community. Where time is concerned, in southern Europe and the East, deadlines are regarded as loose indicators, not commitments. The authors provide a list of when you might expect dinner guests to arrive in different countries (assuming you have invited them for 7.00 p.m.). These range from 6.00 in Japan to 10.30 in Spain. With regard to agreements, Westerners, especially north Europeans, take an absolute view of them, expect them to be honoured and take a dim view of any deviations. Easterners, on the other hand, see agreements as expressions of their willingness to try to do something and as something which may be changed if circumstances change. While many Westerners believe that speeches need to be laced with humour, some nations such as the Japanese take it as an insult and expect you to treat them with respect. An opening apology is more acceptable than an opening joke.

East/West Influences on thinking

Culture determines our personal values and reasoning styles, and therefore our behaviour. People have a natural impulse to assert their own point of view and make it accepted but this will be qualified in different societies by how respectful juniors are to seniors and by the need to live and collaborate with others. In the West we rely on logical argument. In the East, the preference is for influencing through harmony and for ‘hinting’ rather than ordering. There are big differences between nations on attitudes to truth. Westerners have an absolute concept of truth whereas Easterners have a less rigid approach. People there will tell what they think you should know or what they think will please you, without any intention to deceive maliciously. People from different cultures are either open-minded (they seek more information before making a decision) or closed-minded (they select and limited data and ignore the rest). North Americans, say the authors, may sound open-minded but are actually the opposite. Their world is contained within their national borders and most Americans and Canadians neither know nor care about what happens in the rest of the world.

National influences on behaviour

The authors explore the attitudes of different nations to rules and regulations, leadership styles, risk-taking, privacy, individuality, and achievement. They describe two approaches to rules and regulations. Countries, like the US, that favour a ‘standardised’ approach create policies and procedures that can be applied everywhere. In countries, that have an ‘elitist’ approach, like France and Greece, the more successful or socially important you are, the less you are bound by the rules. On risk and uncertainty, they suggest that there are ‘inelastic’ and ‘elastic’ approaches. Nations that favour the former approach don’t like change and uncertainty or risk-taking. In these countries, traditions and customs reduce the uncertainty in life. So, for example, unless you can show business contacts in southern European and Latin American countries a negligible downside, negotiations can drag on forever. Britain and the US, in contrast, are nations of risk-takers who manage by trial and error and always look for better ways of doing things. The authors warn strongly about the need to understand gender issues and etiquette in Muslim countries.

The five stages of cultural learning

How do you fit in as a foreigner and how do you enable foreigners to fit in with you? In a new cultural environment, it is often through making mistakes that we learn what works and does not work. There are ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ spirals of fitting in. The virtuous spiral involves modifying one’s behaviour, respecting others’ ways and leads to cultural sensitivity and the motivation to fit in. The vicious spiral leads to negative reactions to differences, culture clash, break down of understanding and withdrawal and avoidance. Five stages of cultural learning are implicit in the virtuous and vicious spirals:

  1. Catch up - recognising we don’t do things the same way as the host community and that we need to learn new ways.
  2. Relating - connecting with others, opening up to new thinking, and receiving guidance and feedback.
  3. Shock - things will go wrong sometimes - apologise if you give offence without intending to; or, if someone else offends you, ask yourself if it was really intended and try not to take offence.
  4. Understanding - set aside the reflex of rejecting anything that is ‘not like us’.
  5. Progress - recognising and accepting cultural differences and achieving personal growth.

‘Yes’ may not mean ‘yes’

People from other countries can sometimes seem unreliable. Some Asians, for instance, say ‘yes’ when they want to say ‘no’ or ‘I’ll try’ but don’t know how to. This may happen because they are actually trying to save your face. Pay more attention to the other person’s body language than their words to see if you are coming up against an invisible barrier. Give them space and allow them the possibility of changing their minds with dignity. Be aware that the directness of the English language can appear hostile in some cultures.

Making English international

Because English is so widely used, it is tempting to think that everyone can understand it. That is not so and direct translations can leave the real meaning behind. The first step in bridging the communication gap is to remember that our own fundamental beliefs may not be universal truths and that our basic assumptions will be different from people in other cultures. Concepts of time and individuality, for example, colour our language. Follow some basic rules: Start slowly. Use the active voice (‘I said’ rather than ‘It was said’) and employ short sentences. Avoid colloquialisms and metaphors. Decide exactly what you mean to say and say it - cut out the clutter.

Connecting with the audience

When speaking in public you must always meet your listeners’ expectations. Every nation listens differently and you have to take account of how they were taught to learn (were they taught to take copious notes that they can digest later or to sit back and simply listen?). You also need to now what catches their attention and what can turn off an audience in that particular country. The Japanese can pose real challenges for Europeans as they tend to give little feedback, leaving it to the most senior person to speak. Knowing the right buttons to press when addressing a Japanese business audience can help - these include teamwork, craftsmanship, consensus and corporate pride. Remember that the Japanese will probably close down on you if you show irritation or anger as that would be undignified.

How to make an international presentation

The content and structure of a presentation must always be adapted to the tastes of the nation receiving it, even if you are making the presentation in English. Decide the appropriate balance of factual and emotional content. Start with a hook to connect the audience and give them a map of what you are going to say. Structure your presentation as a series of building blocks that lead to a logical conclusion. Plan the opening and closing sentences with care - they are the ones that people will remember. Match the rhythm and pace of an international audience while retaining the merits of an Anglo-Saxon approach to presentations. ‘Be cool but definite in the North but let your passion flow freely where the climate’s sultry.’

Tips on communicating with different countries

This consists of quick reference bullet points on how to communicate with a number of European countries plus Japan and the USA, and how to conduct yourself in international meetings. For example, we are told that the French prefer phone calls to letters and emails, while the Germans are inhibited on the phone and will confirm everything, including face-to-face meetings, in writing. Meetings in France are to discuss process, not to take decisions. In meetings in Germany, the decision will have been taken beforehand by the relevant experts. Meetings in the US, on the other hand, are for well-defined purposes and should have action plans at the end. Americans speak with passion and make their positions clear. The Japanese respect silence in meetings as it signifies that serious work is being done.

Part two of the book consists of a quick reference guide for busy people. This includes the ‘seven relationship danger points of business’ - areas in which significant communication takes place, any of which can undermine the relationships you are trying to build. It covers international meetings and negotiations, contracts, cross-cultural management and selling, political correctness and ‘greasing the wheels’.

The ten best tips for doing business around the world

This is a another reference section to help you understand and deal with business contacts in each of 45 major countries. The information here includes attitudes to rules, management and communication styles. The authors say that this is a quick dip, either to refresh your memory or to provide a prompt for further research. (The data on public holidays and feast days might help those, like the Germans and Swedes mentioned above, who are trying to co-ordinate international programmes and events.)

The book ends with a ‘corruption index’. This provides a notional guide to each country’s propensity to be influenced by personal gain, ranked from 10 (highly clean) to 0 (corrupt). Finland (9.9) emerges as the cleanest country, while Bangladesh (0.4) is ranked as the least clean. The UK scores 8.3 and the USA 7.6. Propensity to corruption is not necessarily explained by culture, however - the index shows an interesting contrast between Singapore at 9.2 and China at 3.5.

Altogether, this is a useful introductory guide to cross-cultural working. It relies quite heavily on anecdotal evidence, although it does allude to some of the theoretical research on cultural differences. Probably the most useful chapters are those on international presentations and dealing with audiences in other cultures. It would be ideal for managers making their first forays into international business.

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