one man pictures a computer mouse while another pictures a rodent“Everyone we deal with speaks English.” This is something we often hear from companies with limited dealings in international markets when we ask about their needs for language services. Of course, our question is: “What about the people you don’t deal with?”

The problem with this mindset is not only the assumption that do they not need to get materials translated, but also that they have no communication problems in their international dealings as long as they’re in English. That’s not necessarily so.

Effective global communication doesn’t just mean learning other languages or translating materials into other languages. It does, however, always require being conscious of the many opportunities for misunderstanding that can arise when you are dealing with people who are from a very different culture and history.

In particular, it can be hard for Americans to come to terms with the fact that, in many cultures, relationships come first, business second.

“Each with his or her own linguistic path”

Anthropologist Edward Hall referred to these different approaches as high-context and low-context societies. Simply put, low-context societies tend to rely more on the literal words of a message. You can “get right down to business” because words speak for themselves. In many cultures, though, people rely more on the context of a relationship and non-verbal cues to make sense of a communication. In these cultures, it is difficult to do business until the surrounding context has been established so that the individuals truly “understand” each other.

The U.S. tends to be a low-context culture. This doesn’t mean that relationships aren’t important, even in business—anyone doing business understands the value of networking—but Americans tend to believe that an established relationship is not necessary for communicating and doing business together. We believe that there is no problem getting across the necessary knowledge and that our interaction can just center around those activities that we are undertaking together.

In a high-context culture, knowledge isn’t looked at as something that is concrete and easily transferred. It depends upon the situation and the relationship between the people involved. Non-verbal communication plays a substantial role, so face-to-face communication is critical. Communication is best with those who are “insiders.”

Since “high-context” aptly describes many of the countries of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, areas that have gained greatly in importance as sources for materials and markets for exports, understanding the difference in culture has become very important for US businesspeople who once could depend on the US market or the dominance of the U.S. economy.

Simply put, the difference means that Americans cannot always expect to “get right down to business” in these markets. Real communication cannot begin until a relationship is already in place and relationships, in turn, build up slowly because they depend so much on establishing trust. On the other hand, relationships are also expected to be stable, so putting in the effort can mean a lot in the long term.

Developing the relationship also will often involve a lot of talk about family and other aspects of what we consider personal life, because family is so much a part of identity in many cultures. Michelle LeBaron, writing for the website Beyond Intractability, quotes author Amy Tan:

I try to explain to my English-speaking friends that Chinese language is more strategic in manner, whereas English tends to be more direct; an American business executive may say, ‘Let’s make a deal,’ and the Chinese manager may reply, ‘Is your son interested in learning about your widget business?’ Each to his or her own purpose, each with his or her own linguistic path.

When dealing with other cultures, patience and the ability to listen and learn may be more important than having all the facts and figures at your fingertips.

Note added Feb 18 2014: MTM LinguaSoft now offers cultural competence training services to help businesses deal with these issues.

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