How cultural differences impact our communication and the way we do business with foreigners

Culture is one of the factors that determine the way people think, act and interact; and it is composed of many layers. Some of them are obvious, such as customs, arts, food and celebrations. Others, such as social status, body language, social interaction, sense of humor, concept of time, or even the definition of insanity, aren’t as noticeable.

The iceberg is often used as a metaphor to define culture: the external part directly visible above the “waterline”, with the much larger part hidden under the surface. Doing business with foreigners is about understanding this hidden part of their underlying culture.

cultural iceberg

Every country has a specific inherent culture, which can vary from one region to another. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the concept of high and low-context culture, as well as the use of personal space by individuals within a culture.

High-context cultures, which include many Asian, South American and African countries, value society and collectivity. Group harmony and intuition are important concepts. Context is more valuable than words themselves, and much of the meaning of speech is implied. Body language, eye behavior and even the use of silence are valued means of communication. In low-context cultures, however, facts, descriptions and precision of words are considered a lot more important than context. Logic is also given more credit than intuition and society tends to be individualistic. It is customary to speak out and explain one’s point of view in detail.

As culture influences behavior and one’s reaction to a given situation, it is a primary element of communication in general and even more so in a business environment. Doing business with foreigners is particularly delicate: It can differ from one culture to another and what is customary in one country could be considered extremely rude in another one needs to be aware of the other person’s culture when a transaction is at stake.

Business etiquette, negotiations and even contracts (the latter of which, in some countries, are a sign of distrust), are just a few of the numerous business practices that are influenced by culture.

In the high-context Chinese culture formality is very important and hierarchy is a big part of the culture. It is therefore especially important to take these cultural aspects into consideration when doing business with China. Part of the business etiquette is to hand out or receive a business card with both hands, and it is considered rude not to look at it carefully before putting it away. In some countries, negotiations cannot take place before socializing, drinking tea or coffee or having a meal.

 Business in China

It is essential to get acquainted with all these practices before a business trip or a meeting with foreigners.

Hiring a language company for your business translations or interpretations will facilitate your professional interactions. It can prevent deal-breaking faux pas and other mistakes, and ensure a strong, successful long-term business relationship with your foreign collaborators.

Trained bilingual and bicultural experts will help you with the translation of important documents and interpretation at conferences or meetings. Accent on Languages works with the best language professionals and can be a valuable partner for all your linguistic and cultural needs.