Tips for successful intercultural business communication

You know your business and you know your culture but is it enough to be successful on a global scale. If you want to expand outside your national borders, deal with clients and partners from abroad and even employ team experts from other countries, then it is vital that you bear in mind different intercultural communication skills.

What has stood you in good stead over the years of rising and raising your business profile, may not be applicable in all situations. This is not about specific professional skills but the soft skills and behaviors that will make you a global success story, or at least oils the wheels of your business communication.

The key is knowledge, understanding and openness, and most of all good preparation. Here are some tips to consider when engaging in international markets and working with international partners. Obviously the whole point is that each country is different so it’s going to take some research and a little leg work for each particular circumstance but it’s well worth the effort.

Actively learn about other cultures

The best technique for learning is always an active approach, a willingness, and a desire. Take an interest. Each country, even in an increasingly similar globalized system, has its own particular and sometimes seemingly peculiar traditions and accepted ways of doing things. You don’t have to learn everything about everywhere, so target specific countries that you work with or want to work with and particular areas of business that you think will be useful. There are many ways, the internet is a lifesaver for sure but why not consult with colleagues and get a more personal account.

No one expects you to be an expert but an interest in the history, traditions, and values of a country is very much appreciated and can help you stand out from a crowd of similar business opportunists. In the long term, this approach helps create and bind strong business partnerships yet it is valuable in the short term too. On a very practical level, it helps avoid misunderstandings, but it also shows a caring professional business mantra, sets a tone of mutual respect, illustrates your willingness to fit in and adapt and flatters the hosts.

Observe and understand your partners’ behavior

Active learner from books, online material, and questioning colleagues is one thing, but good observation skills add an extra string to your bow. You can have the theory but seeing it demonstrated in practice really makes it hit home. Observe, understand, and adapt. This shows politeness and awareness of your situation and emphasizes how adaptable and thoughtful you can be.

For example, whilst it’s perfectly okay to speak louder in the USA, you should keep your voice down in Japan. It’s fine to address your partner by their first name in the USA and Canada but never in the UK, France, Germany, and Russia. Interruptions are allowed in Brazil but not in Canada and the USA. Learn more about business etiquette around the world.

Adapt your marketing material

Historical examples in which global companies have used different marketing approaches to present their products in different parts of the world with great success are far and wide. For good reasons, these examples should inspire you to really think about your market strategy and materials. What is acceptable for one culture, might be completely outrageous for another.

It’s extremely important to do your homework on what is acceptable in the country whose market you are planning to enter. It’s also crucial to double-check your marketing materials for lexical errors or word choices that could be misinterpreted. Use native speakers to check through everything. Bear in mind color symbolism is particularly culturally sensitive, so you may have to rework your packaging or branding. Images, especially of gender, can be sensitive areas. Think also of religious issues. Check everything, check it again, get someone else to check, use agencies, or native speakers that have experience.

Giant brands like Nike, Apple, McDonald’s, etc. set perfect examples with their cross-cultural campaigns of how to adapt messages to different cultures. So, no matter the scope of your business, going international certainly requires adaptation of your marketing approach.

Language differences

Whilst English may be the global language, the lingua franca of the business world, it is by no means spoken by everyone, everywhere, and definitely not fluently. Languages have always been considered barriers to business, but these barriers are getting easier to break down all the time. It is normal to experience difficulties but it is by no means insurmountable.

Learning English will open doors and make your business communication easier, even between non-native speakers. For native speakers, it is worth thinking about your own use of the language. How can you adapt to become more understandable, think about your use of idioms, slang, heavy accent, speed of speech? Your basic modus operandi is to be understood and to communicate. If you are writing, work on clarity, read things back, and alter to avoid any potential misunderstandings. Consider using translation services, especially for very sensitive or technical emails, and even more important for legal contracts and documents.

When in a foreign country, you can hire an interpreter. Even if your hosts speak your language this can often help. Outside of the business setting itself, guides and interpreters can provide valuable insights into cultural roles and expectations too.

Learning a few words or common phrases in an alternative language is a great way to make a positive impression and can even the most tricky situation. No one expects you to be fluent, especially if you aren’t a native English speaker, but a few words show friendship, effort, and willingness to forge a relationship.

Gestures

In much the same way as we’ve talked about, regarding language, colors, images, and behavior, body language and gestures are important but can be tricky customers. These instinctive gestures during a discussion or meeting, the physical distance when talking, the amount of physical contact, hand gestures, etc all have significance and very often culturally different meanings or nuances. Look them up before your meeting. Not only can this be a problem during a face-to-face meeting, but even during an online meeting on a communication platform.

For example, whilst a handshake is a well-acceptable gesture of agreement in many cultures, pointing with your index finger might be misinterpreted in some cultures, e.g. in China and Japan. The hand sign for OK is widely used in the USA but it might be understood as showing a zero in other countries. Showing thumbs up and thumbs down is usually understood correctly across nations but you never know. When it comes to intercultural business communication, the rule is to use gestures sparingly, especially if you are not sure how they would be interpreted.

Equally, with body language, different countries have different norms regarding standing distance and personal space during a discussion. Argentinians are known for standing particularly close, whereas Romanians prefer to keep well apart. These seemingly minor issues can result in a feeling of rudeness, or over-friendliness and lead to discomfort and misunderstanding, at worst you end up doing a kind of dance around the room.

Closing words

If you disregard the rest of the planet you are seriously limiting your business opportunities and potential. Intercultural business communication is inevitable as we move forward and it’s getting easier and easier. That doesn’t mean that you can neglect the fact that your client, partner, colleague, or employee has a different cultural and often linguistic upbringing. With a little time, effort, and preparation intercultural business can be a great success. You are not expected to know all the ins and outs but showing that you’ve taken the time, illustrating an awareness of the issues, demonstrating understanding and willingness are excellent business values that go way beyond just aiding communication between parties. These are the values and principles that can make you an outstanding, stand out partner.