Modern technology has opened up new marketplaces that allow us to promote our businesses in new geographical locations, allowing us to expose ourselves to new cultures. Given that it can now be as easy to work with people remotely and globally as it is to work face-to-face, it is vital to be aware of cross-cultural communication.

Why limit yourself to working with people within convenient driving distance when it is just as easy to work with the most knowledgeable people in the world at the touch of a button?

In this era where technology is allowing us to work in a multinational way, good cross-cultural communication is a must. But what is culture? And what is good cross-cultural communication?

Culture is a complex concept with many definitions. Geert Hofstede, a prominent social anthropologist, defines culture as, the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another”.

In an attempt to explain culture more clearly, many intercultural experts use the ‘Iceberg Model of Culture’; culture is often compared to an iceberg which has both visible (on the surface) and invisible (below the surface) elements. Aspects of culture which we can plainly see, such as food or clothes, are represented by the upper portion of the iceberg. Those elements which are not as obvious, such as why someone carries out certain actions are represented by the much larger, hidden portion of the iceberg.

Failure to understand and recognise these parts of culture and the layers that compose them, as well as how they influence each often lead to amusing misunderstandings, but can also have a serious impact on business.

In today’s various marketplaces, almost every enterprise has conducted business with a foreign company in some way or another. The key to being successful in international business is to understand the role of culture itself. Whatever sector you are operating in, cultural differences will have a direct impact on your profitability. Improving your level of knowledge of international cultural differences can aid in building international competencies as well as enabling you to gain a competitive advantage. Below, we give three basic tips on how to prepare for international business:


1. Learn about the culture beforehand.

A little knowledge can go a long way. If you have time before embarking on a trip or meeting with someone from another culture, try to take time to learn the basic “do’s and don’ts” of that culture. Take the time to brush up on your foreign language skills and practice the basics such as: “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and “how are you?”

Taking the time to learn the basics about culture and at least some basic language skills is important. This is necessary even for the basic level of understanding required to engage in appropriate greetings and physical contact, which can be a tricky area inter-culturally. For instance, kissing a business associate is not considered an appropriate business practice in the U.S., but in Paris one peck on each cheek is an acceptable greeting. The firm handshake that is widely accepted in the U.S. is not recognised in all other cultures.

2. Communicate mindfully

If you have travelled a lot before, you will know that there are noticeable differences in communication between people from one country to another. In some cultures, people are loud, direct or even blunt and tend to interrupt others during a conversation. In others, people are typically soft-spoken, use flowery or indirect language and wait patiently for others to finish their sentence.

During a business meeting, these differences are likely to come to the fore. Try to adapt to the way your business partners communicate; always use last names and titles unless you are invited to do otherwise. Be proper, respectful and patient.

When you communicate, keep in mind that even though English is considered the international language of business, it is a mistake to assume that every business person speaks good English. In fact, only around half of the 800 million people who speak English learned it as a first language. Those who speak it as a second language are often more limited than native speakers may expect.

When you communicate cross-culturally, make particular efforts to keeping your communication clear, simple and unambiguous.

3. Value time

Cultural differences also become apparent when considering concepts of time. Is the scheduled time frame for a meeting set in stone, or does it allow for some flexibility? Will you jeopardise a business deal by arriving late, or is it perfectly acceptable to let family matters, for example, take precedence over business appointments?

For example, most would agree that Germans are known for their punctuality. In many African and South American countries, however, scheduled appointments are often treated like a general guideline rather than something one has to strictly abide by.

Another way of valuing time is being mindful of the different time zones of counterparts. This can be important when arranging video conference calls.


Original content written by SmartPA Partner, Lara Langman.