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Intercultural business communication

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.

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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 hand—so 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 citizens— and the first chance to make an impression for better or worse—is 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 meet—country by country, surnames underlined—to 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 sheep’s 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 Here— 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 through—or 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.

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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.


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 cultures—that 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.


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.


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:

• 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.

• Never give a gift of liquor in Arab countries.

• In England, never stick pens or other objects in your front suit pocket.;

doing so is considered gauche.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.


Intercultural business writing falls into the same general categories as other forms of business writing. How you handle these

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