Cultures, People and Business

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Those looking to expand their businesses internationally or to work abroad are often told they need to be ‘culturally aware’ – but what does this actually mean?

What does Culture mean to me?
Culture is a somewhat arbitrary term conjuring ideas ranging from theatrical productions to religious festivals. To put it simply: it is the way that things are performed (or not performed) in relation to the beliefs or inherent motives of the performer.

When we look at Culture we need to think about thought, processing, reasoning, method and connections. People from other cultures will not be ‘wired’ in the same as you; their alternative way of thinking about the world will affect how they approach business. Subsequently their method/s of processing information and the reasoning behind their actions may seem unusual from your point of you. This difference will affect how they make connections and communicate with other people and how they view relationships, status and society within the workplace.

Sign on the dotted line

The methodology behind the use of contracts can be remarkably different between cultures. It is important to consider these questions:

-Does a contract open or close a deal within this culture?
-Will using a written contract encourage or destroy trust in this business relationship?
-Who will sign the contract and therefore who is responsible for upholding the agreement?
Furthermore ‘Terms and Conditions’ can be employed formally or informally, orally or in writing; it is important to think about how ‘clear-cut’ the use of conditions are in a relevant culture.

Quantity or Quality
The way cultures think affects how they weight the importance of actions. North American culture tends to value ‘Quantity’ –ie. the most done in the least amount of time- whereas Eastern cultures tend to aspire for ‘Quality’, pursuing high standards even if this extends the length of time a project takes.

Information exchange
Effective communication, through whatever method, is key to connecting with another business and building a successful working relationship. For example, if you are trying to make a pitch to a group of people from another culture you must be aware how best they process information and the reasoning behind what they consider a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ proposition.

To do this the method of your presentation is vital. Some cultures relying on making a subjective connection with the presenter, they deem a conversational tone and often humour good practice in a pitch; however other cultures might find this besides-the-point or even unprofessional. Japanese business culture responds to statistics and being told objectively what a project entails.

Abstract Concepts
Understanding certain abstract concepts is also required to facilitate effective communication.  For Western cultures the most important challenge is to understand the, predominantly Eastern, concept of ‘Face’. Apart from its use within linguistic theory (where ‘face’ is categorised as a politeness principle) most Western people would not automatically understand what the principle of ‘face’ means or why it is vital to both Eastern business and society. It basically means that all people have the right to be respected and have their self-respect valued; actions that cause a person to feel foolish, stupid or embarrassed therefore undermines their ‘face’. Similar concepts of ‘respect’, ‘honour’ or ‘promise’ are also seen in other cultures.

An easy way to remember these cultural hints when in a new business situation is to ask yourself three questions:
a)    How does this person or do these people think differently to me?
b)    How might these thinking processes affect their actions?
c)    How should I adapt my actions accordingly to ensure efficient and respectful communication?

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