6 Examples of Cultural Differences in Business Communication

Whether you are working abroad or are required to liaise globally with colleagues or business partners, understanding how to effectively communicate with people from all over the world is a key professional skill – one that is increasingly important in today’s multicultural work environment. 

It can be difficult to find common ground with people from other countries, especially when their customs and business practices seem so different from your own. So we’ve outlined a few examples of cultural differences in communication and how they become apparent in the workplace, along with some easy tips on how to better understand your international peers.

1. Managing emails and phone calls

Telephone conferences can be very effective in improving business communication and cooperation within international companies. However, sometimes problems can arise when participants don’t know what to expect from each other.

Let’s look at how different cultures might approach this kind of communication – perhaps Brazilian people need some personal contact before acting or would like to know the benefits of providing information.

Small talk can be very important for building relationships. British people might use humor, whereas Chinese colleagues may want to check with the group or boss before responding.

If there are no sensitive issues involved, it’s a good idea to use emails to communicate information beforehand, taking care to respect cultural differences when addressing people (for example, the use of first names in the UK, and titles in Austria).

Be sure to follow your emails with telephone or face-to-face communication, especially when cooperating with cultures with high person orientation.

The telephone conference itself should have a clear structure, with time to speak for everyone. Make sure that everyone is still involved by asking for feedback from individuals, and keep in mind that some people may have to check with the group or boss before expressing an opinion.

Things will go much more smoothly once everybody feels informed and involved.

2. Presentations

Consider how people from different countries approach their goals. Future oriented cultures like those from the UK want to hear about the potential benefits of a product, while past oriented audiences from places like India or China recognize credibility through past achievements. Because of this, presentation styles vary across cultures – some like to focus on the ‘big picture’ before going into detail and appreciate interaction with the audience.

On the other hand, in-depth presentations from low-context cultures simply concentrate on the facts. The key to a successful international conference is the ability to translate information in a way that appeals to everybody – think about your style of communication, gestures and body language when presenting.

3. Meetings and how to facilitate them

Big events like international sales meetings can quickly become disorganized and lose direction if communication breaks down between groups from each country. Participants may arrive late and leave early if there’s no clear schedule, and frustration can arise if too little time is left to cover all of the topics. Perhaps some colleagues don’t concentrate on the presentations, or don’t go to the meals as planned.

Avoid misunderstandings by clearly defining the aims of a meeting and telling presenters what is expected from them. Remember that meeting culture for the participants could be very different from yours – it’s very important to consider language requirements like interpreting and translation facilities, as well as dietary requirements, if food is being provided.

Do make sure to plan enough time for interaction and a social program around the meeting. Check what is expected from the participants and keep an open mind when considering their cultural preferences.

4. Socializing

Highly person-oriented cultures find socialising very important, because getting to know each other is necessary to doing business together. You may be invited out in many countries, often to places you may never have expected – like a karaoke bar in Japan, or a sauna in Finland.

Try to research these customs before your trip, and take advantage of being invited out to get to know each other and build trust. Not only will it benefit you professionally by meeting new contacts, you’ll be experiencing something new! By showing interest, you’ll make it much easier to navigate negotiations when the time comes.

5. Handling negotiations

Business negotiations can be tricky at the best of times, but even more so if there are any cultural misunderstandings. For example, Chinese culture values hospitality and getting to know business partners better before anything is agreed upon – eating together is very important, and it can take a long time before plans are made. For an American visitor, this approach could seem counter productive.

Think about the best environment for negotiations, who should be involved, and even things like appropriate clothing and seating arrangements – as with many of the above scenarios, being sensitive of cultural factors like this can make all the difference when building relationships.

6. Managing teams

Cross-cultural communication is vastly improved when roles and expectations are clarified. This is especially important when managing teams from all over the world. Be aware of different styles of communication – some may be more direct than others, or only give feedback at certain stages.

Spend time on face-to-face relationship building before switching to virtual communication, and make sure to include all team members in decision making at all stages of the project. Once you’ve identified the cultural differences that could lead to any miscommunications or misunderstandings, find common ground and decide how you want to work together.

As with any aspect of business, things are made easier with good communication. Although this can be daunting when dealing with colleagues from different cultural backgrounds, it’s important to educate yourself and your employees about how to approach any potentially delicate situations.

A version of this article was first published by Berlitz USA.

How to learn a language, fast!

Getting to grips with a new language can seem challenging, especially if you need to learn it fast. Perhaps you have to move abroad for work, converse with overseas colleagues, or better communicate with a new partner or friends. 

But even if time is a factor, don’t be daunted or overwhelmed – having realistic expectations and setting small goals will help you conquer basic conversational skills. You may find you can communicate with native speakers much more quickly than you would have imagined.

Here are a few easy things you can do to hit the ground running.

Take every opportunity to speak your target language

Like any new venture, learning a language takes dedication. Experts agree that results happen fastest when we commit to our new skills, rather than choosing the easy option of speaking in our native tongue.

Your brain will have to work harder and think creatively to communicate in your new language, but the more you use it, the more likely it is to stick. This is why many of us have already forgotten the French or Spanish we learned at school – we simply didn’t apply it to our everyday lives.

Even if you aren’t able to live abroad, there are many ways to use your new language at home.

Surround yourself in your chosen language

Try changing the language settings on your phone and social media. Put aside set amounts of time to study or speak in your new language without getting distracted, and you’ll soon notice a difference. This type of language immersion is guaranteed to speed up the learning process.

If time isn’t on your side, discover how our Total Immersion programme could help you – with a customized and intensive curriculum of full day sessions, we aim to have you communicating in your chosen language in as little as a week.

Use your down time to learn

Think about the things you do to relax – reading, listening to podcasts, or watching television. Try looking at foreign language media, switching to podcasts recorded in your target language, or watching shows with the subtitles on.

Reading illustrated children’s books is a great way to start learning the basics because of the visual clues that accompany the words. Even if this seems like hard work at first, it won’t take long before new words and phrases begin to make sense.

Experience the local culture

If you can, plan a trip abroad so you can experience the language and culture firsthand. This will allow you to try out your new skills in the ideal setting. Set yourself achievable daily goals by ordering food in a restaurant, or asking where you can find specific items at the grocery store.

If you’re learning English, a stay in Oxford will quickly develop your communication skills, whether you are buying a ticket for the bus, talking to your host family in the evening, or ordering a coffee.

These kinds of interactions with native speakers will help you understand context and improve your confidence.

Practice with others

It’s important to have a native speaker or instructor help with your progress. Although repetition is key to learning, with nobody to correct you or give feedback, you could be repeating the same mistakes over and over.

With our one-to-one intensive programmes, you’ll be guided by trained instructors in one-on-one, face-to-face interactions using learning methods to suit you as an individual. It can also be beneficial to practice in a group setting, where you can converse with your classmates.

You’ll have regular feedback sessions so you know where to improve – and where you’ve mastered it.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

All too often we try to memorize long lists of words, and it can be frustrating when the grammar doesn’t come naturally.

Focus on fluency rather than perfection, and study practical topics instead of trying to recite long passages of text – chances are you’ll still be understood, and with practice, the grammar will follow.

Make mistakes

You will make many along the way, so have courage and approach every interaction as an opportunity to learn. Don’t be afraid to get things wrong – native speakers will appreciate your efforts. It’s very easy to be put off, especially in the early stages, but try not to be too hard on yourself.

Once you embrace mistakes as part of the journey and begin to learn from them, you’ll enjoy the process so much more.

Keep it up!

When you reach your language learning goal, don’t be tempted to let your new skill fall by the wayside. Use what you’ve learned and keep practicing – join a local language group, or find a partner to meet with regularly.

With this language under your belt, you may find taking on others is now much easier than before. You’ll go from strength to strength if you see it as an opportunity for lifelong learning.

A version of this article was first published by Berlitz USA.

Berlitz Study Abroad® in Oxford posters

Berlitz Study Abroad® offers a great opportunity to surround yourself within Oxford’s local culture, the English language and its people, in the most effective way to improve and develop your language skills.

To help promote Berlitz Study Abroad® opportunities, we have created a poster in two sizes, which can be printed and distributed to centres around the world.

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