Among the most frequently cited obstacles to peace-of-mind cross-cultural commercial communication is the utilization of various languages. For many companies, it’s not only the use of a second language that presents obstacles – it’s also the way in which different cultures view different languages. In a culture where English is the dominant language, it can be very challenging to consider what another language might mean. It’s hard to underestimate the value that a solid understanding of other cultural norms plays in international business communication, as well.
The following case study is one of many revealing international business communication barriers. I’ve been corresponding with a number of Northern European businesspeople in the past two decades. A few of our cases have been informative and enlightening, while others have elicited feelings of embarrassment or hostility from the participants. In each case, we’ve been able to discern what part of the participants’ cultural perspective lies behind the decision to communicate in only one language (i.e., German for the businesspeople who were born in Germany and Denmark for the businesspeople who were born in Denmark). In all cases, there were two general observations that we’d like to offer as guidelines to future practitioners: first, the cultural dimension of cross Cultural communication can be highly resistant to translation; and second, if the participants in the cross-Cultural exchange were sensitive to the existence of cultural difference, there was a certain amount of adjustment necessary for them to fully appreciate and accept the other people’s perspective.
We believe that there are three major factors responsible for the resistance to translation: (a) the participants’ own mindset regarding translation difficulties; (b) the lack of awareness of, and inability to perceive, cultural differences; and (c) the presence of a number of other barriers, including (a) the belief that business communication needs to be limited to English and/or that any attempt to bridge the gap could be viewed as insincere. There is some truth in (c) with regard to the notion that the perceived inability to perceive or understand a language’s differences could be viewed as insincere. It’s true that the participants in the international business communication exchange did not possess the ability to accurately translate the message being communicated. However, the perceived inability to accurately translate the message did not prevent them from receiving and understanding the message–rather, it caused them to be more attentive and reflective of the meaning of the message. As a result, they were more able to embrace it whole-heartedly and accept it as part of their lives.
The perceived inability to receive or understand another culture stems from a negative view of the target country. As participants made the effort to try to comprehend the other party’s point of view, the tendency was for them to imagine a problem, a stumbling block, rather than a potential opening for enhanced international business communication. This is because they failed to look at the other participants’ point of view from an intercultural context. Without such a context, making efforts to understand another culture becomes more problematic.
To illustrate this point, take the following example: Two South African corporations, working in coordination to promote a movie produced in the United States, come into contact with one another on an import/export level. Upon learning of another corporation’s offering, the South Africans feels obligated to compete aggressively on price and prevent the entry of its products into the American market. The Americans on the other hand, seeing the tremendous potential of the foreign market, feel obligated to match or exceed the competition in every way possible. Although both corporations may have reached a reasonable agreement, both still believe that there are insurmountable barriers which will prevent them from reaching common ground and creating a profitable relationship.
In this scenario, the perceived barriers became reality because of the lack of an intercultural context to which the South Africans had agreed to look. If an international business communication exchange had taken place in a South African city, the barriers faced by the corporations would have been different and perhaps less significant. Without knowing how other cultures saw the situation, one could not have known what was possible or what was not. Because of this, there is absolutely no possibility of understanding another culture’s differences and similarities. In order for such an exchange to occur, you must know where you are starting off, what your goals are, and how your competitors are going about achieving those goals. By engaging in an honest and realistic assessment of the differences, you increase your chances of coming up with a strategy that is meaningful to each of the companies involved.
Cross-cultural communication requires an accurate analysis of the relationships among the participants in the business environment. Each of the participants has a different set of cultural and developmental norms. These must be respected and taken into account in order to create a meaningful strategy. In the same way that the analysis of cultural and power distance affects the analysis of gross translation, so too does the analysis of these relationships and the power distance between them. By taking all these factors into consideration, you can better understand and evaluate the opportunities and obstacles that arise when the various cultures interact with each other.
The environment in which business is carried out is very dynamic. This is why a firm that has developed a good strategy in one culture may seem to be unable to adapt when it comes to the different cultural norms in another. By using cultural comparison to analyze the natural resources of two or more locations, you increase your chances of developing a strategy that fits the needs of both parties and takes into consideration the unique characteristics of each place.