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Intercultural business communication


Intercultural business communication

THE BASIC FORMS OF COMMUNICATION

As 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.

NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION

The 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 feelings.

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.

Non-verbal 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.

Why non-verbal communication is important

Although 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 interaction.

One 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.

Non-verbal 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 winkЧall are streamlined expressions of thought.

The functions of non-verbal communication

Although 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 other.

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

functions:

Х To provide information, either consciously or unconsciously

Х To regulate the flow of conversation

Х To express emotion

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

Х To control or influence others

Х To facilitate specific tasks, such as teaching a person to swing a golf

club.

Non-verbal 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.

Furthermore, 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.

VERBAL COMMUNICATION

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 wordsЧsymbols that

stand for thoughts Ч 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.

We 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.

Speaking 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.

Listening 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.

FIGURE 1.1

Forms of Business Communication

Similarly, 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.

College 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.

Although 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 reference.

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.

BASICS OF INTERCULTURAL BUSINESS COMMUNICATION

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 business.

UNDERSTANDING CULTURE

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 customs.

So 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.

Distinct 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 .

Cultures and subcultures vary in several ways that affect intercultural

communication:

Х Stability. Conditions in the culture may be stable or may be changing

slowly or rapidly.

Х Complexity. 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.

Х Composition. Some cultures are made up of many diverse and disparate

subcultures; others tend to be more homogeneous.

Х Acceptance. 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.

DEVELOPING INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS

When 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

possibleЧthe language, cultural background and history, social rules, and

so onЧabout 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

differences.

The 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:

Х Taking responsibility for communication. Don't assume that it is the

other person's job to communicate with you.

Х Withholding judgment. Learn to listen to the whole story and to accept

differences in others.

Х Showing respect. Learn the ways in which respect is communicatedЧ

through gestures, eye contact, and so on Ч in various cultures.

Х 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.

Х Tolerating ambiguity. Learn to control your frustration when placed in

an unfamiliar or confusing situation.

Х Looking beyond the superficial. Don't be distracted by such things as

dress, appearance, or environmental discomforts.

Х Being patient and persistent. If you want to accomplish a task, don't

give up easily.

Х Recognizing your own cultural biases. Learn to identify when your

assumptions are different from the other person's.

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

attitudes.

Х Emphasizing common ground. Look for similarities to work from.

Х Sending clear messages. Make your verbal and non-verbal messages

consistent.

Х Taking risks. Try things that will help you gain a better understanding

of the other person or culture.

Х Increasing your cultural sensitivity. Learn about variations in customs

and practices so that you will be more aware of potential areas for

miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Х Dealing with the individual. Avoid stereotyping and overgeneralization.

DIFFICULTIES OF INTERCULTURAL BUSINESS COMMUNICATION

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.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

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, weТll 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?"

The 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 Ч 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 spend.

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 comfortable.

The 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.

In 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 correspondence.

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.

More 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.

Sometimes 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.

Barriers to oral communication

Oral 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.

In 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.

Idiomatic 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).

When speaking in English to those for whom English is a second language,

follow these simple guidelines:

Х Try to eliminate "noise." Pronounce words clearly, and stop at distinct

punctuation points. Make one point at a time.

Х 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.

Х Rephrase 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 voice.

Х 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?"

Х Use 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.

Х 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.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

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.

Such 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.

Religion 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.

As 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.

Roles and status

Culture 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.

Concepts 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.

Cultures 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 Ч there is no majority rule). If the process is

not laborious enough, the Japanese feel uncomfortable.

Concepts of time

Differing 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.

Or 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?

The Japanese, knowing that North Americans are impatient, use time to

their advantage when negotiating with us. One of them expressed it this

way:

"You Americans have one terrible weakness. If we make you wait long

enough, you will agree to anything."

Concepts 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.

Body language

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 children.

Sometimes 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.

Social 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 Pen

Do as the Natives Do,

But Should You Eat the Roast Gorilla Hand

If offered, you should eat the roast gorilla handЧso 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 citizensЧ and the first chance

to make an impression for better or worseЧis 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 meetЧcountry by country, surnames

underlinedЧto 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 sheepТs 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.

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 HereЧ 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 throughЧor 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.

ETHNOCENTRIC REACTIONS

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 culturesЧthat 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:

Х 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.

Х Never give a gift of liquor in Arab countries.

Х In England, never stick pens or other objects in your front suit

pocket.;

doing so is considered gauche.

Х 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.

Х 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.

Х 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.

Х 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

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:

Х Use short, precise words that say exactly what you mean.

Х Rely on specific terms to explain your points. Avoid abstractions

altogether, or illustrate them with concrete examples.

Х 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.

Х Construct sentences that are shorter and simpler than those you might

use when writing to someone fluent in English.

Х Use short paragraphs. Each paragraph should stick to one topic and be

no more than eight to ten lines.

Х Help readers follow your train of thought by using transitional

devices. Precede related points with expressions like in addition and

first, second, third.

Х 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.

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.

Other documents

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:

Х 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.

Х Be alert to the other person's customs. Expect him or her to have

different values, beliefs, expectations, and mannerisms.

Х Try to be aware of unintentional meanings that may be read into your

message. Clarify your true intent by repetition and examples.

Х Listen carefully and patiently. If you do not understand a comment, ask

the person to repeat it.

Х 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.

Х 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.

Х 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.

Х 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.

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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