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Keys to Understanding Cultures in International Business

Understanding the cultures in which a business operates is integral to its success in an increasingly globalized world. As you take your company into new markets, it is as imperative to have cross-cultural teams trained in understanding the culture as it is to have professionals who know your industry.

The culture of the United States differs in many ways from cultures around the world in organizational hierarchies, communication styles, manners, cultural norms and even simple business greetings. Not getting these details right can cost your business dearly. Here are a few tips to consider when exploring cultural differences as they apply to international business.

Research Cultures

Enjoy the fascinating work of exploring cultural differences before you engage with leaders in other cultures. Learn the local etiquette so you can avoid major faux pas. In India, eating with the left hand is considered unclean and pointing to or touching books with one’s feet is considered disrespectful. In Central and South America, the western “OK” hand sign is considered obscene. In China, lip smacking while eating is normal, but blowing one’s nose is highly objectionable. In Brazil, purple and black are colors of mourning, so gifts in these colors can be offensive. Though Americans love casual Fridays, the French see dressing to impress as a sign of respect.

When it comes to actually conducting business, what’s considered on time varies all over the world. Germans and Americans are highly punctual, often arriving early, while Italians and Mexicans may be considered on time even when they’re 10 minutes late. The Chinese distribute agendas prior to meetings. Germans get to the point ASAP in negotiations, while in other cultures, small talk precedes rapport. In Eastern countries there is a complex “honor culture” over losing face that Westerners must understand. There are complex differences in how subordinates relate to leaders in Asian business hierarchies.

Understand that the rest of the world sees the United States as unique. Our culture emphasizes the individual over the collective and values equality, expression and self-actualization. Employees expect recognition in ways that their counterparts around the world may not. All of these ideas can easily be misconstrued by people from other cultures.

Practice Sensitivities

Even with years of training, well-meaning professionals make mistakes. There is always the potential for misaligned expectations, especially for those who go into communications with a bias toward their own culture’s way of operating. These can be mitigated with training in diplomacy and tact in dealing with other communication styles.

Also, as a rule, in any culture avoid controversial topics in business settings, such as politics and religion, as well as taboo subjects like alcohol and sex. Practice cultural sensitivity, be nimble in your exchanges and be ready to make concessions and apologies when the inevitable misunderstandings occur.

Form Alliances

Networking is never more important than when establishing business relations overseas. When venturing into a new culture, it helps to have business partners who can make introductions, ease tensions and provide valuable advice. Find collaborators who have years of experience among business leaders in working with your new client company and in that culture.

If you do plan on spending parts of your career operating in foreign countries and working closely with other cultures, it pays to choose an MBA program that emphasizes the rudiments of cross-cultural relationships across its curriculum. Faculty members at Pittsburg State University have years of experience in cultures around the world, and your takeaways from the program can help you be more effective in your cross-cultural dealings.

Learn more about Pittsburg State University’s MBA in International Business online program.


InterNations: Navigating International Business Culture

Experteer: International Business Culture 101

Velocity Global: The Importance of Understanding International Business Culture

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