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Intercultural business communication

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 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:

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

• Rely on specific terms to explain your points. Avoid abstractions al­together, or illustrate them with concrete examples.

• 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.

• Construct sentences that are shorter and simpler than those you might use when writing to someone fluent in English.

• Use short paragraphs. Each paragraph should stick to one topic and be no more than eight to ten lines.

• Help readers follow your train of thought by using transitional devices. Precede related points with expressions like in addition and first, sec­ond, third.

• 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.


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:

• 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.

• Be alert to the other person's customs. Expect him or her to have differ­ent values, beliefs, expectations, and mannerisms.

• Try to be aware of unintentional meanings that may be read into your message. Clarify your true intent by repetition and examples.

• Listen carefully and patiently. If you do not understand a comment, ask the person to repeat it.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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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  1. Why non-verbal communication is important

  2. The functions of non-verbal communication


a)Speaking and writing

b)Listening and reading






  1. Barriers to written communication

  2. Barriers to oral communication


  1. Religion and values

  2. Roles and status

  3. Decision-making customs

  4. Concepts of time

  5. Concepts of personal space

  6. Body language

  7. Social behaviour and manners



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