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Cross Cultural Barriers to Export

The idea that cross cultural awareness can and is a real business benefit has been around since intercultural training began, in a modest form, 20 years ago.

Recently as more companies, organisations and governments have had to deal internationally the value placed on cultural awareness has increased.

Nevertheless there does remain skepticism that intercultural training is a soft skill that offers very little benefit to a businesses bottom line.

A study compiled in the book, 'Language and Culture in British Business', offers some insight into how intercultural awareness is hampering the success of businesses when doing business abroad.

Research has shown that 20-30% of companies have identified a lack of cultural awareness as an obstacle to doing business internationally. Although a high figure it is important to question whether this can really be accurate. A crucial point to consider is how companies have identified when cross cultural differences have become a problem, i.e. if they don't appreciate that cultural differences can in the first place cause problems, is it reasonable to believe that they could identify them when they occur? It could very well be that the figure is lower than in reality.

Among the areas companies identify as posing particular cross cultural barriers are:

  • Body language
  • Etiquette
  • Establishing trust
  • Religious beliefs
  • Social habits

Other more business related cross cultural barriers included differing approaches to:

  • Invoicing and payments
  • Credit terms
  • Customer preferences
  • Packaging - i.e. sizes, colours, typeface

All the above mentioned areas are aspects of doing business which differ from culture to culture and if there is a lack of synergy between parties it is often hard to create an environment conducive to profitable business. It is clear from the results of the study that those businesses that are unaware of how culture can play a role in their business dealings abroad can suffer.

Cross cultural awareness training is a simple, cost effective and long term solution for many companies. As part of a properly prepared international business strategy the provision of intercultural training to staff can reap excellent rewards. Equipping key staff such as managers and sales staff with the know how to deal with other cultures not only guarantees a higher success rate when doing internationally but also immediately offers a company a competitive edge.

Cultural awareness training offers participants with two types of training. One looks at a specific country or culture and how to do business with them. For example if a company is planning to start a relationship with China, a China cultural awareness training course will introduce them to areas such as using intermediaries, building relationships, gift giving etiquette, how to entertain, etc. The second type of training is a more general overview of the importance of cultural skills, i.e. developing what is called 'cultural competence'. Cultural competence is about widening horizons and implementing skills such as self-awareness, flexibility, open mindedness and cultural knowledge that can be applied across cultures.

Cultural awareness training can make an important impact on any business or organisation wanting to maximize their potential internationally. With staff that can deal sensitively and effectively with clients, customers and colleagues from other cultures a business becomes more competitive and more profitable.

* Language and culture in British business is by Stephen Hagen and is available from CILT (The National Centre for Languages)

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