One of the biggest mistakes when expanding abroad is to believe that communication is the same the world over. Every country has its own way of saying and doing things. Even in the most culturally aware countries, foreign business partners are expected to have some understanding of the local culture.
To be successful as a cross-cultural communicator, preparation is a must. Researching the differences before overseas marketing, trips or meetings will help you build a positive image from the beginning. It’s important to keep in mind:
- Your own business preferences and behaviours are culturally based and not necessarily the ‘correct’ or only ones.
- Be sensitive to a range of verbal and non-verbal behaviour – there are no universal gestures
- Have an open mind to other views and ways of doing things.
Here are some tips that provide examples of cultural differences in countries where Accru has strong business relationships:
If you decide to expand into China, be sure to keep a keen eye on the numbers you use, particularly if these are relevant in your corporate communication material. Numerology plays an important role in Chinese culture. For example, the number 8 is a great number to use because it stands for wealth, whereas 4 is considered taboo. The Chinese word for 4 sounds very similar to the word for “death” and thus 4 symbolises death and destruction. Needless to say, should the number 4 appear in your product or company name, a name change is highly recommended!
In France it is not only recommended to communicate in French, it is in fact a legal requirement. The so-called “Toubon Law” (also ironically known as “All good” Law – a translation of “Tout bon”) obliges companies to communicate in French, right down to their marketing slogans, such as Nike’s “Just do it”. This can in some cases result in rather absurd word constructs!
Germans do not like surprises. Business matters are carefully planned out and decided upon, with changes rarely occurring after an agreement is made. Sudden changes in business transactions, even positive ones, are not generally well received. Time is also managed carefully and Germans are extremely punctual. Respect their schedules and agendas and do not turn up late for an appointment – even a few minutes delay can offend.
While common in many western cultures, using the forefinger to point is seen as rude in Malaysia. Instead, make a fist with your thumb over the top of the fingers and point using your thumb to indicate direction. Curling the index finger with the palm facing up to beckon someone is also considered rude, as is pointing your feet towards people or sacred images.
There are now apps to help with insights into cultural differences, eg. the Geert Hofstede app provides country-country comparisons for more than 100 countries.