Bridging Cultural Differences

Consequences of cultural misunderstanding are no laughing matter - U.S. companies have lost millions of dollars by miscalculating the cultural impact of products and services marketed outside of the United States. Executives in a recent survey reveal that cultural barriers (63%) and language and translation issues (44%) have become the two primary challenges in brand management. Localisation of the brand does pay off though: two-thirds of survey respondents agreed that efforts such as translation and cultural adaptation had a positive impact on sales in those regions.

While your company may not be involved in international ventures of this magnitude, cultural clashes can still have negative implications. The global village is a diverse one. The fact that we can communicate instantly, sending large files in seconds, does not change the fact that people have different histories, different languages, different accents, different gestures and different diets.

In the United States, relationships are much less important than in other countries, such as Japan, Spain or Turkey. While Americans are often so hungry for results that they tend to go directly to action, other cultures focus on developing a more solid rapport based on trust and respect first.

American managers are used to urgent deadlines. Many cultures in Europe and Asia, however, prefer to think things through, gaining consensus and understanding exactly how they are going to get things done before they take action. In dealing with such cultures, count on taking more time. Many managers recommend increasing estimates of project time by at least 10% due to communications overhead.

When dealing with many cultures recognise that "no" is not a polite word and is not used frequently. Also saying "yes" does not automatically mean that "I agree", it may mean "I hear what you have said" or "I understand". Some people will say "yes" when they mean "I'll make an honest effort" or "I'll try" - not, "It's 99 percent certain to happen and I'll take personal responsibility if it doesn't.". This "yes" comes from the desire to please, not the impulse to deceive.

In some cultures people may use a side-to-side head gesture to signal agreement rather than disagreement. Shaking hands and touching is not always acceptable (particularly if one of the people is a woman).

English may be spoken by people all over the world but accents and usage often make the language difficult to understand. It can be much easier if:

  • the vocabulary is limited to the words that you would learn in a language class,
  • short sentences are used and the meaning repeated using different words,
  • language is limited to basic syntax,
  • idiomatic expressions are avoided,
  • extensive hand gestures are used to get the point across,
  • you are aware of body language and build it into your communication skills.

Above all, listen carefully and take time to ensure that everyone understands. Try to obtain feedback to ensure that misunderstandings are minimised.

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