Business is not conducted in an identical fashion from culture to culture. Consequently, business relations are enhanced when managerial, sales, and technical personnel are trained to be aware of areas likely to create communication difficulties and conflict across cultures. Similarly, international communication is strengthened when businesspeople can anticipate areas of commonality. Finally, business in general is enhanced when people from different cultures find new approaches to old problems, creating solutions by combining cultural perspectives and learning to see issues from the viewpoint of others.
Problems in business communication conducted across cultures often arise when participants from one culture are unable to understand culturally determined differences in communication practices, traditions, and thought processing. At the most fundamental level, problems may occur when one or more of the people involved clings to an ethnocentric view of how to conduct business. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one's own cultural group is somehow innately superior to others.
It is easy to say that ethnocentrism only affects the bigoted or those ignorant of other cultures, and so is unlikely to be a major factor in one's own business communication. Yet difficulties due to a misunderstanding of elements in cross-cultural communication may affect even enlightened people. Ethnocentrism is deceptive precisely because members of any culture perceive their own behavior as logical, since that behavior works for them. People tend to accept the values of the culture around them as absolute values. Since each culture has its own set of values, often quite divergent from those values held in other cultures, the concept of proper and improper, foolish and wise, and even right and wrong become blurred. In international business, questions arise regarding what is proper by which culture's values, what is wise by which culture's view of the world, and what is right by whose standards.
Since no one individual is likely to recognize the subtle forms of ethnocentrism that shape who he or she is, international business practitioners must be especially careful in conducting business communication across cultures. It is necessary to try to rise above culturally imbued ways of viewing the world. To do this, one needs to understand how the perception of a given message changes depending on the culturally determined viewpoint of those communicating.
The communication process in international business settings is filtered through a range of variables, each of which can color perceptions on the part of both parties. These include language, environment, technology, social organization, social history and mores, conceptions of authority, and nonverbal communication behavior.
By assessing in advance the roles these variables play in business communication, one can improve one's ability to convey messages and conduct business with individuals in a wide range of cultures.
Among the most often cited barriers to conflict-free cross-cultural business communication is the use of different languages. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that an understanding of linguistic differences plays in international business communication. Given this reality, business consultants counsel clients to take the necessary steps to enlist the services of a good translator. Language failures between cultures typically fall into three categories: 1) gross translation problems; 2) subtle distinctions from language to language; and 3) culturally-based variations among speakers of the same language.
Gross translation errors, though frequent, may be less likely to cause conflict between parties than other language difficulties for two reasons. Indeed, the nonsensical nature of many gross translation errors often raise warning flags that are hard to miss. The parties can then backtrack and revisit the communication area that prompted the error. Even if they are easily detected in most cases, however, gross translation errors waste time and wear on the patience of the parties involved. Additionally, for some, such errors imply a form of disrespect for the party into whose language the message is translated.
The subtle shadings that are often crucial to business negotiations are also weakened when the parties do not share a similar control of the same language. Indeed, misunderstandings may arise because of dialectical differences within the same language. When other parties with full control over the language with whom the nonnative speaker communicates assume that knowledge of this distinction exists, conflict deriving from misunderstanding is likely.
Attitudes toward accents and dialects also create barriers in international business communication. The view that a particular accent suggests loyalty or familiarity to a nation or region is widespread in many languages. The use of Parisian French in Quebec, of Mexican Spanish in Spain, or subcontinental Indian English in the United States are all noticeable, and may suggest a lack of familiarity, even if the user is fluent. More importantly, regional ties or tensions in such nations as Italy, France, or Germany among others can be suggested by the dialect a native speaker uses.
Finally, national prejudices and class distinctions are often reinforced through sociolinguistics—the social patterning of language. For example, due to regional prejudice and racism certain accents in the United States associated with urban areas, rural regions, or minorities may reinforce negative stereotypes in areas like business ability, education level, or intelligence. Similarly, some cultures use sociolinguistics to differentiate one economic class from another. Thus, in England, distinct accents are associated with the aristocracy and the middle and lower classes. These distinctions are often unknown by foreigners.
The ways in which people use the resources available to them may vary considerably from culture to culture. Culturally-ingrained biases regarding the natural and technological environment can create communication barriers.
Many environmental factors can have a heavy influence on the development and character of cultures. Indeed, climate, topography, population size and density, and the relative availability of natural resources all contribute to the history and current conditions of individual nations or regions. After all, notions of transportation and logistics, settlement, and territorial organization are affected by topography and climate. For example, a mountainous country with an abundance of natural waterways will almost certainly develop different dominant modes of transportation than a dry, land-locked region marked by relatively flat terrain. Whereas the first nation would undoubtedly develop shipping-oriented transportation methods, the latter would concentrate on roadways, railroads, and other surface-oriented options.
Population size and density and the availability of natural resources influence each nation's view toward export or domestic markets as well. Nations with large domestic markets and plentiful natural resources, for example, are likely to view some industries quite differently than regions that have only one (or none) of those characteristics.
Some businesspeople fail to modify their cross-cultural communications to accommodate environmental differences because of inflexibility toward culturally learned views of technology. Indeed, cultures have widely divergent views of technology and its role in the world. In control cultures, such as those in much of Europe and North America, technology is customarily viewed as an innately positive means for controlling the environment. In subjugation cultures, such as those of central Africa and southwestern Asia, the existing environment is viewed as innately positive, and technology is viewed with some skepticism. In harmonization cultures, such as those common in many Native American cultures and some East Asian nations, a balance is attempted between the use of technology and the existing environment. In these cultures, neither technology nor the environment are innately good and members of such cultures see themselves as part of the environment in which they live, being neither subject to it nor master of it. Of course, it is dangerous to over-generalize about the guiding philosophies of societies as well. For example, while the United States may historically be viewed as a control culture that holds that technology is a positive that improves society, there are certainly a sizable number of voices within that culture that do not subscribe to that point of view.
Social organization, as it affects the workplace, is often culturally determined. One must take care not to assume that the view held in one's own culture is universal on such issues as nepotism and kinship ties, educational values, class structure and social mobility, job status and economic stratification, religious ties, political affiliation, gender differences, racism and other prejudices, attitudes toward work, and recreational or work institutions.
All of these areas have far-reaching implications for business practice. Choosing employees based on résumés, for example, is considered a primary means of selection in the United States, Canada, and much of northern Europe—all nations with comparatively weak concepts of familial relationships and kinship ties. In these cultures, nepotism is seen as subjective and likely to protect less qualified workers through familial intervention. By contrast, it would seem anywhere from mildly to highly inappropriate to suggest to members of many Arabic, central African, Latin American, or southern European cultures to skip over hiring relatives to hire a stranger. For people in these cultures, nepotism both fulfills personal obligations and ensures a predictable level of trust and accountability. The fact that a stranger appears to be better qualified based on a superior résumés and a relatively brief interview would not necessarily affect that belief. Similarly, the nature of praise and employee motivation can be socially determined, for different cultures have settled upon a wide array of employee reward systems, each of which reflect the social histories and values of those cultures.
Finally, it is often difficult to rid business communication of a judgmental bias when social organization varies markedly. For example, those from the United States may find it difficult to remain neutral on cultural class structures that do not reflect American values of equality. For instance, the socially determined inferior role of women in much of the Islamic world, or of lower castes in India—to name just two—may puzzle or anger Western citizens. Nevertheless, if the Western business-person cannot eliminate the attendant condemnation from his or her business communication, then he or she cannot expect to function effectively in that society. An individual may personally believe that a country's social system is inefficient or incorrect. Nevertheless, in the way that individual conducts business on a daily basis, it is necessary to work within the restraints of that culture to succeed. One may choose not to do business with people from such a culture, but one cannot easily impose one's own values on them and expect to succeed in the business arena.
Different cultures often view the distribution of authority in their society differently. Views of authority in a given society affect communication in the business environment significantly, since they shape the view of how a message will be received based on the relative status or rank of the message's sender to its receiver. In other words, conceptions of authority influence the forms that managerial and other business communications take. In working with cultures such as Israel and Sweden, which have a relatively decentralized authority conception or small "power distance," one might anticipate greater acceptance of a participative communication management model than in cultures such as France and Belgium, which generally make less use of participative management models, relying instead on authority-based decision making.
Among the most markedly varying dimensions of intercultural communication is nonverbal behavior. Knowledge of a culture conveyed through what a person says represents only a portion of what that person has communicated. Indeed, body language, clothing choices, eye contact, touching behavior, and conceptions of personal space all communicate information, no matter what the culture. A prudent business person will take the time to learn what the prevailing attitudes are in such areas before conducting businesses in an unfamiliar culture (or with a representative of that culture).
As business has turned more and more to an integrated world market to meet its needs, the difficulties of communicating at a global level have become increasingly widespread. Lack of understanding deriving from ethnocentrism or ignorance of culturally based assumptions erroneously believed to be universal can readily escalate to unproductive conflict among people of differing cultural orientation. This may occur on the domestic front as well. With the increasing numbers of immigrants to the U.S. our "melting pot" society leads to cultural diversity in the workplace. In combination with a growing emphasis on global markets and an interdependent and internationalized economy, the need for dealing with intercultural differences and cross-cultural communication barriers has grown.
Small business owners and representatives face a sometimes dizzying array of communication considerations when they decide to move into the international arena, but most issues can be satisfactorily addressed by 1) respectfulness toward all people you meet; 2) thinking before speaking; and 3) research on current business etiquette, cultural and customer sensitivities, current events, and relevant history.
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