in Language & Culture

In today’s globalized world, it is more important than ever to know how to navigate cultural differences in order to build a successful business. In a book titled The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, writer Erin Meyer, affiliate professor at INSEAD, gives a detailed depiction on how culture affects global business across countries.

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One way to understand cultural miscommunication is to examine low-context and high-context cultures. In low-context cultures, the communication is clear and explicit, whereas in high-context cultures there is a high level of shared context, and the communication is implicit and nuanced. For example, the Hindi word kal, meaning “one day away from today,” is used for both “yesterday” and “tomorrow,” which can be confusing to a Westerner. The concept of “reading the air” —being able to read between the lines when receiving a message—is prevalent among Asians.  In Japan, for example, KY stands for kuuki yomenai, meaning “one who cannot read the air”—if you can’t read the air, it means you are not a good listener. The opposite of that is evident in American and Anglo-Saxon cultures: “if you don’t understand, it’s my fault.” But when it comes to giving negative feedback, people tend to shift their behavior. The US, Canada and UK are low-context cultures but indirect in their way of giving negative feedback, whereas Russia as a high-context culture is highly direct in giving negative feedback.

Another challenge of doing business cross-culturally is building trust. Meyer proposes two opposite concepts: task-based and relationship-based trust. In America, people don’t usually like to drink with their business partners—because what if an embarrassing situation arose? But in China, building good relationships often involves spending time with potential business partners at the dining table—eating, drinking and spending a lot of time together. Those relationships are called guanxi, which is similar to the idea of a strong network built in order to succeed. Once trust is gained, people are more likely to put their cultural differences aside.

The comfort of silence is also another factor in trust and comfort building. In the US, Italy and France, the comfort of silence is low, but not so in Japan, Indonesia and Korea. In the US, it takes three seconds of silence before a conversation gets uncomfortable; in Japan, it takes 27 seconds. This leads to many Asians not getting an opportunity to speak in business meetings with Westerners.

Therefore, it is necessary in cross-cultural business matters to remember the importance of cultural sensitivity. No matter what culture you encounter, Meyer’s advice is to always respect each other’s cultural differences and not to look at them as weaknesses. In this way, dealing business cross-culturally can lead to successful outcomes.


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