Learning about cultural differences is a key to success in global business by Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D.


In the United States, both small and large companies are searching for overseas avenues for their products and services. New markets open, and the demand for U.S. goods increase daily. At the same time, we observe an increasing number of overseas business blunders, and subsequent lost opportunities for U.S. companies due to cultural factors.

Doing business internationally requires more than just an understanding of the myriad of foreign rules and regulations. Lack of knowledge about the culture of various partners and customers may create misunderstandings, frustration and embarrassment that can lead to loss of business.

Whether you are traveling overseas to make new business contacts, to sign a contract or expand your business in other parts of the world, the success of your venture may well be determined by your ability to understand the nuances of your customer’s culture. It is estimated that U.S. companies lose up to $4 billion annually in failed international business.

Without exception, culture shock is a way of life to most of us who travel and deal internationally in business. Each culture has its own rules and ways of doing things, especially when it comes to social business relationships like buying, selling, marketing or partnership.

It’s been said that “You can buy in any language, but if you want to sell, you better speak the language of your customer.” A famous example is the thousands of Chevy Novas that were shipped to Spanish-speaking countries. Chevrolet was shocked that these cars were not selling. The reason for the poor sales is that in Spanish, “No va” means “It does not go.”

Cultural Observations
A U.S. military officer student attended a military meeting at the French Embassy. At the end of the keynote speech, the student was the only person in the room to applaud. Everyone else turned and looked at the student. It was embarrassing. Why? In the French Army, you don’t applaud after speeches.

In the People’s Republic of China, a U.S. businessman had his credit card confiscated for signing the bill in red ink pen. In China, writing notes in red ink pen suggests the writer will die soon. In Central Africa, writing and or signing a letter with red ink suggests that you wish death to the receiver.

In a Central African village, a Peace Corps Volunteer got a crowd of village children following her home as she repeatedly waved the U.S. “hello” sign (opening and closing the four fingers). Why? In the village, the same sign was an invitation to receive gifts. She was embarrassed and the children were disappointed.

A U.S. woman who worked with an African national, announced to a male colleague with great enthusiasm that she was “expecting,” even though she was not yet showing. In a defensive tone, he asked why she chose to inform him of the pregnancy. The woman walked away disappointed and offended. On his part, the man reported to their boss that she had falsely accused him. Why? By telling her colleague about her pregnancy, the lady was sending a message that he was suspected to be the father. In his African culture, only the father should be aware of an early pregnancy.

Tips for Conducting Business Abroad
Learn about the target culture by asking questions about general aspects of the country’s culture you are exploring for a business opportunity. Gather information about the business culture of your industry in the host country.
Respect others’ values and beliefs, be open-minded and ready to learn. Develop nonjudgmental views of situations and interactions, and be tolerant of ambiguity. Interacting with diverse cultures requires that you be flexible and socially adaptable.

Develop the discipline to maintain personal control. Astute observations along with good listening and interaction skills will help you learn the nuances of a culture. When interacting in an unfamiliar culture, develop the mindset of seeing things as different, rather than negative. Refining your problem-solving skills and being a prudent risk-taker will help you be more comfortable in your ability to manage in unfamiliar territory.

Do not rush to the “bottom line.” In the U.S. this would mean: “I am here for business only.” Most people around the world spend more time interacting on a personal level before moving on to business. They like to build trust and a relationship before engaging in business.

Learn the target language of the country where you intend to conduct business. At least learn a conversational level of the target language and develop familiarity of common vocabulary used in your business. Also, get important documents translated into the target language as a courtesy even for international partners who speak English.

Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D., specializes in teaching Americans about world cultures and languages. He is president of Universal Highways Inc., a consulting firm dedicated to culturally and linguistically preparing individuals and small and large businesses to succeed in their international endeavors and ventures.