There are notable cultural differences among reporters in Manhattan, Silicon Valley and Houston. Consequently, effectively dealing with them requires a degree of cultural sensitivity. Now, add an international layer to the mix. For U.S. business people seeking favorable public opinion in markets outside the United States, it is essential to research and respect the culture of the foreign media, employees, investors and policymakers. In the end, how well you understand their culture and demonstrate your knowledge of what is and is not appropriate will have a major impact on your relationship and its ability to produce favorable results.

Defined as a society’s collection of values, beliefs, behaviors, customs and attitudes, culture is also often chock full of nuances that cannot always be explained. Culture is learned, embedded and interrelated. In addition, it defines individual and group similarities and differences. But no matter what, culture cannot be ignored. America—the melting pot of the 20th and 21st centuries—embraces cultural diversity. Yet, the land of plenty may not always be the first to acknowledge the foreign media’s culture. The result: a poor relationship from the beginning.

Chances are you are familiar with the expression “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” As children, we are taught to do what is asked of us in terms of dinner and bedtime rituals when staying at a friend’s house. Yet, sometimes when children become adults this valuable lesson is forgotten and hurts the ability to forge new relationships. Attitudes and societal values differ considerably throughout the world and this needs to be recognized. For example, acceptable behavior in one cultural setting may be viewed as immoral, unethical or rude in another. Take for instance, kickbacks. While often expected in some countries, these extras may land one in jail in other parts of the world. And nepotism, while prevalent in some corners of the globe, is frowned upon in others. Levels of product support and expectations of consumer loyalty also vary. For example, in the United States a limited warranty often is considered generous. In Japan, even when the warranty expires, the seller still is expected to support the product to some extent. Being familiar with cultural norms will help eliminate misunderstandings.

Many cultures also regard time and status as very different commodities. For example, Germans tend to be extremely time conscious and highly punctual. On the other hand, Latin Americans and Italians tend to have a more relaxed sense of time. This means a German reporter may arrive 15 minutes early for an appointment, while a Latin American may arrive 15 to 30 minutes late. If one is not familiar with the different ways these cultures view time, a problem could arise. For example, one could erroneously assume that the Italian reporter values the meeting less than the German reporter.

Employee work standards or ethics in other cultures also vary. In general, U.S. and German business people are considered driven and hard hitting. Yet, this could lead Mexicans to feel slighted since little time is allocated to friendship development—something Mexicans value. Americans typically prefer to get right down to business after a few minutes of small talk. To some, this does not support friendship—a prerequisite to building a mutually beneficial relationship in many countries. In Saudi Arabia, for example, an initial investor meeting may be designed to establish mutual trust. As such, business usually is not even discussed until the second meeting.

For those doing business in Japan, it is key to know that Japanese culture is defined in hierarchical terms with the good of the group reigning supreme. In this culture, emphasis is placed on seniority and group well-being instead of youth or individual performance. As a result, seeking a decision from an investor without a group consensus, for example, is extremely difficult and could just as well shatter a deal. Similarly, status, which can be identified by titles on business cards, carries much weight across the Asian continent. When deciding to whom one should speak or determining the level of formality to use when speaking, definitely consider the status of your foreign contact. In general, it is better to be more formal than less formal.

Cultural practices also play a large role in determining national strengths. For example, most product development in Asia is performed by entry-level personnel. Once promoted, this work usually is passed into the hands of new inexperienced arrivals. In the United States, when technical product development personnel are promoted, they frequently retain their technical functions instead of moving into management positions. U.S. companies also encourage dissent and the questioning of common practices. These cultural practices often lead to thinking “outside the box” and contribute to American inventiveness and ingenuity. In Japan, as noted above, decisions are usually based on consensus. This practice is known for advancing strong iterative skills that result in valuable product refinement.

Many nations also have specific customs worth noting. In India, for instance, the right hand should be used for eating, giving and accepting since the left hand is considered unclean. Pointing with the index finger is considered impolite in Malaysia; it is more appropriate to point with the thumb of the right hand with the fingers folded under. Furthermore, in France, a firm, vigorous handshake is considered uncultured. And, in the Middle East, one should not point one’s finger at someone or show the soles of one’s feet when seated. Foot soles are considered unclean and offensive.

Nonverbal communication also plays a very important part of any relationship, especially since the meaning behind gestures and facial expressions can vary significantly. For example, nodding “yes” in the U.S. is equivalent to “no” in Bulgaria. It should come as no surprise to an astute business person that body posture, positioning and eye contact are equivalent to “reading between the lines” and usually influence how one is perceived. Take for instance the following example: the joining of the thumb and forefinger in a circle while extending the other three fingers symbolizes “OK” in the U.S. However, in Malta, this symbol signifies homosexuality; in Japan, money; in France, inadequacy; and in many parts of Eastern Europe, vulgarity.

In some cultures, an employee may sometimes say yes when asked about his ability and willingness to complete a task even when he has no intention of doing so. Why? In the employee’s eyes, saying no to a manager may be considered disrespectful or rude. Or, the employee may feel compelled to say yes for fear of losing face. In these cases, the employee would rather lie than seem incapable of performance. In the U.S., yes almost always means yes. The American business world does not leave much room for shades of gray. As a result, understanding the motive behind a yes that actually means no could help improve a deteriorating relationship.

One typical obstacle to building a successful international business relationship is ethnocentric behavior. Unfortunately, Americans sometimes are perceived as arrogant with little willingness to accept or adapt to the foreign culture, including communicating in the host country’s language. When U.S. firms establish foreign subsidiaries, some tend to implement a communications policy of “one size fits all,” and don’t always consider different cultural modes of doing business. This ethnocentric behavior is often regarded by foreign media, as well as employees, investors and policymakers, as rude and disrespectful. In turn, miscommunications can lead to missed opportunities.

To counter this behavior, it is extremely important for U.S. business people to speak the host country’s language whenever possible. Even simply attempting to communicate in the host country’s native tongue can work wonders in demonstrating mutual respect and a willingness to build trust.

U.S. corporations operating in foreign countries often act as agents of change, bringing improved operating standards, cutting-edge technology and best business practices. But because change sometimes causes anxiety and fear, it is not always welcome—regardless of the benefits. Not being culturally sensitive can certainly begin with bad press and end in lost deals. On the other hand, a sound understanding and respect of foreign cultures can help you satisfy your international communications objectives and achieve your corporate goals.

This section appeared in Part II: Tips and Strategies for Communicating Responses of the book Grasping Globalization: Its Impact and Your Corporate Response, 2005.

John Manzella
About The Author John Manzella [Full Bio]
John Manzella, founder of the, is a world-recognized speaker, author and an international columnist on global business, trade policy, labor, and economic trends. His latest book is Global America: Understanding Global and Economic Trends and How To Ensure Competitiveness.

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