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Business communication insights, innovations and perspectives

Doing business internationally? Don’t forget that communication is cultural

If you’ve ever done business with someone outside your country, you may have encountered some cultural barriers that hindered the communication process. This can be frustrating for business and communications professionals, especially those who don’t take the time to consider foreign cultural norms. Being cognizant of these differences can be crucial to your businesses success in our increasingly interconnected global economy.

A recent article from Harvard Business Review explains the difference between Eastern Asian perspectives and Western perspectives. Author Erin Meyer cites research from the University of Michigan’s Takahiko Masuda and Richard E. Nisbett that demonstrates holistic thought processing versus specific thought processing.

For their study, Masuda and Nisbett showed Asian and Western participants short videos of an underwater scene. When asked to describe what they saw the Asian participants described the entire scene, providing detail about the foreground and background objects. Westerners, on the other hand, reported the prominent objects in the foreground with little or no mention of the other objects in the video. In another experiment, Masuda and Nisbett asked participants to take a photograph of an individual. Most Asian-produced photos captured the subject’s entire profile as well as their surrounding environment. In contrast, photos taken by Westerners were mostly close-ups providing more detail of the subject’s face with little or no emphasis on their environment. The study demonstrates that Eastern Asian cultures tend to think holistically, seeing an entire situation and how its parts are connected. In contrast, Western cultures tend to think specifically, removing a subject from its environment and analyzing it as a single entity separate from the whole.

Research such as this can be useful to business professionals worldwide in a variety of situations, whether negotiating business deals, advertising in foreign markets, or training workers overseas. Colorado-based Global Perspectives Consulting provides communication training and support for organizations, helping them create understanding, improve relationships, and increase productivity. In a recent post on its blog, GPC says that when it comes to training workers across cultures, there are eight major “region-specific cultural factors” to consider: historical tradition of education in the region, learning styles, high versus low context communication, deductive versus inductive approach to information, shame and honor paradigm, status markers, group orientation, and time orientation.

Many business analysts believe a lack of cultural sensitivity is the reason many international business deals fall through. It can also shine a negative light – justified or not – on those who don’t do their homework before conducting relations outside their country. Last year Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates made international headlines when, during a trip to South Korea, he was photographed shaking hands with president Park Geun-hye with one hand in his pocket. While most Americans wouldn’t think twice about his relaxed demeanor, it was interpreted as a sign of disrespect by many South Koreans. U.S. president Barack Obama, on the other hand, was criticized by some U.S. media for adhering to cultural protocols by bowing to foreign dignitaries while traveling overseas, a gesture some Americans feel undermines his authority. These are just some examples of how maintaining positive and productive relationships, at any level, can be complicated. While there may not always be a right answer, preparation and understanding can mean the difference between sealing a deal and offending an entire country.

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