Since the dawn of human civilization, culture and communication are intimately related. As a matter of fact, one cannot survive without the other, and one is formed because of the other. Each culture has its own unique background, assumptions, experiences, expectations and diverse perceptions about certain matter.
And when at least two cultures collide in any business transaction, it is always inescapable to have difficult communication (e.g. miscommunication and misinterpretation) or a simple failure to communicate altogether. Let’s take China and United States as examples since both have been doing business for decades and are in close proximity as to who will rule as the ultimate economic superpower.
These two countries have their own respective sets of business etiquette. Both have different backgrounds and history. Both are huge nations with a variety of people living in their territories. These people also have their own set of standards when doing business, locally or abroad.
For example, people in northern China might have a different take in business etiquette than those in the southern part of the country and of those in the United States, and vice versa. They might share the same language but these lands are just so huge that their citizens tend to form their own set of cultural rules, standards and business customs apart from what their nation and society as a whole dictates.
Here are some common differences and challenges that business communication goes through when two different cultures try to communicate with each other.
In the US today, it is customary and widely accepted to conduct business using e-mail, instant messaging, and video conferencing. This type of correspondence is governed by the formality and professionalism of business communication. Thus, Americans regard this as a legal business voucher.
In China, things are a little bit different. Chinese don’t see the great importance and impact of emails in business correspondence. They often complain that their emails don’t work, or have restricted firewall settings. Emails in China are not supported by the mobile systems. As a result, emails are often rejected.
Americans are accustomed to communicating by any means available. On the other hand, Chinese highly regard face to face communication especially when doing business transactions with other countries. This difference one way or another influences the successful flow of business dealings between these two nations.
Obviously, Chinese and Americans speak different languages. The problem here is not the language per se but how they use their language to communicate.
Chinese use their language based on their view of humanism and in keeping with their privacy. It is highly unusual for them to disclose their age, marital status, family, income and where they live to their foreign counterparts. It’s even rude if one (stranger) innocently asks them, “How’s your family?” A rather polite gesture in western culture.
Ironically, it’s quite natural and considered friendly for them to speak to others (e.g. Americans) casually. When asked, “Have you eaten?” Americans take it as a somewhat informal question not necessarily something one would ask during a professional meeting but to Chinese it is just a way of showing friendliness and hospitality.
Chinese are collective thinkers and they put emphasis on the big picture. They believe in creating harmonious relationship with one another. On the contrary, Americans are personal value believers.
They put stress on individual idea, grouping a whole idea into small ones then dividing these groups into the simplest element, which they study individually. Americans are advocates of personal freedom, self-reliance, self-control, self-development and self-improvement.
When attending business meetings, it is a general rule to observe the greeting protocol of the host country. For example, Chinese are not particularly fond of any touching or patting on the back as a form of greeting but Americans are more familiar and at ease with this.
When being introduced, Chinese are very formal. They remain standing for the duration of the introduction. Even the level of their bow is based on seniority either by rank or age. But Americans are quite the opposite. They are informal and a little friendlier. They shake hands when introduced.
People in southern China say thank you by tapping their two fingers on the table. This practice is not known in the northern part of the country. When negotiating, people in Beijing tend to take their time before they come up with a decision. And when Chinese in general hint that their territorial integrity is not taken seriously, they tend to react very strongly, which to Americans is overkill and really unnecessary.
These are just a few of the differences that may come up when people of various backgrounds, cultures, traditions and customs meet. When overlooked or misjudged, they could affect the flow of the business communication and alter the outcome.
Thus, one must realize that to create profit-generating business communication, it is crucial to understand and recognize these differences especially when dealing with people from a different culture and customs. In the end, there is one purpose why people do business and persistently communicate in spite of their differences.