Working with Foreign Cultures


Cultures differ in how they communicate, how they use their time, and how they view themselves in terms of empowerment and decision making. These differences are likely to become apparent in business sessions with people from other countries. There has been considerable research done by anthropologists, psychologists and businesspeople on what these differences are and how we can learn to work effectively within other cultures, as will be described in this chapter. The main variables we will discuss are selected from the research of Edward Hall, Florence Kluckhohn, F.L. Strodtbeck, and Geert Hofestede.

Many business people are not prepared for some of the basic differences that they will experience when working with other cultures. Both businesswomen and businessmen will experience many culturally differing styles, mannerisms, and behaviors, and women in particular frequently find themselves wondering whether certain behaviors they are observing are culturally related or are related specifically to their gender. It is important to understand that these differences do exist, to learn to identify these differences, and to develop strategies to cope with them. There are many dimensions of cultural differences, and many which are unique to each country. This chapter will summarize some of the more common cultural differences that you may encounter in business, including variations in:

o Communication (high and low context)

o Use of time (polychronic and monochronic)

o Space (personal and physical)

o Environment (locus of control)

o View of time (past, present, future)

o Activity (being or doing)

o Power distance (hierarchy)

o Individualism and collectivism (group orientation or individual orientation)

High-Context and Low-Context Communication

Asians are very aware of slights to self image or status and are careful not to slight others. If an Asian “loses face,” which is equivalent to being socially discredited, he or she can no longer function effectively in the community. The reputation of a company or country is similarly affected. Accordingly, Asians will go to considerable lengths to avoid harming the reputations of their coworkers and countrymen. It is therefore important for Westerners to avoid criticism or ridicule, even if it may seem warranted. It usually makes the situation worse, since the criticized party may even seek revenge. While the revenge may be verbal, it can also be more concrete and damaging to you and your enterprise. Be careful to exercise diplomacy in any situation where criticism, discipline, differences of opinion, or anger is involved. (Palo Alto, California) (– from Asia for Women on Business)

I was in Germany on business, and after dinner one evening I wandered into an art gallery and spotted a very interesting painting. I asked the woman working there how much the piece cost, and she gave me a price. I looked at a few more works and asked her for several more prices, which she gave me. After strolling around the gallery, I went back to her and told her I would take the first painting I had inquired about. She said, “Oh, that one is sold.” Surprised, I pointed to my second choice, then my third choice, and she responded that they too were sold. Confused, I finally asked “Which paintings are not sold?” and she replied, “Oh, just that one there.” I asked her why she didn’t tell me that at the beginning. She looked surprised and said, “Well, you didn’t ask.” (Newark, New Jersey)

Cultures, as described by Hall, vary in their use of contextual information. In “low-context” cultures – such as the United States – people are relatively direct and explicit in their communications and social interactions, and they tend to conceive of life in a segmented, compartmentalized manner. In contrast, in “high-context” cultures – such as Japan – people interact in more covert and implicit manners.

More specifically, people in low-context societies usually require explicit information to feel comfortable making business decisions. However, people in high-context cultures do not usually rely upon a lot of research data or in-depth background information when making business decisions, but rather glean information from their many close relationships within their extensive networks of family, friends, colleagues and clients.

Americans (low-context) tend to be very direct in their style of communication. Americans generally say exactly what they mean, and try to be very clear and concise. In their desire to save time and clarify points, Americans may try to bring someone with an indirect style back to the point and clarify it frequently to stay focused. Emotion rarely comes into play overtly when Americans conduct business transactions, because they feel that business should be a factual exchange. Many high-context cultures dislike this American style of “straight” conversation, and Americans frequently miss the subtleties that exist in high-context cultures.


Tips for conducting business in high-context cultures:

o The U.S. and much of Europe are viewed as low-context cultures. These cultures place a higher value on verbal messages than do the high-context cultures in Asia and parts of Latin America, who view words as tools not to persuade, but rather harmonize. Be sensitive to subtle cues and do not assume that information will be directly verbalized.

o In a high-context culture, preserving harmony is very important. When conducting business, a Japanese or Latin American businessman may not say “no” or express disagreement overtly. Therefore you need to understand how the culture you are working with expresses disagreement so you can identify it. In many cases, disagreement will be implied when your foreign associate asks another question or uses an expression such as, “This is a difficult question to answer.”

o Low-context cultures may view the communication style of high-context cultures as a waste of time. Conversely, high-context cultures may find the low-context style of communication insensitive and rude. Be aware of how you come across and adjust your style if necessary.

Polychronic Time versus Monochronic Time

I had to enter late for my first business meeting in Milan, Italy, but my colleagues were aware of this and told me to drop in whenever I arrived. As I walked closer to the meeting room, I heard raised voices all talking over each other. I peeked in to see if I had the right meeting, and I saw what “polychronic” really means. Some of the Italian men were pacing the floor with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths; others were scribbling on the whiteboards and making wild gestures; they were talking over each other in multiple conversations in English and Italian at the same time; all the while espresso was percolating and being passed around. Finally someone noticed me, handed me a marker, pointed at the whiteboard, and said “Well, what are you waiting for? What do you think?!” (Dallas, Texas) (- from Europe for Women in Business)

The way people view time also varies in different cultures, as observed and described by researcher Hall. Monochronic time cultures, such as those of the United States and most Northern European countries, emphasize schedules, a precise reckoning of time, and promptness. Time is viewed as a discrete commodity. People in these cultures do one thing after another, finishing each activity before starting the next.

On the other hand, in polychronic cultures, such as those in Latin America and the Middle East, people tend to do more than one thing concurrently (or intermittently during a time period) and to emphasize the number of completed transactions and the number of people involved, rather than the adherence to a time schedule. Being on time is less important in polychronic cultures than in monochronic cultures.

Americans (monochronic) tend to think of time as something fixed in nature, which cannot be escaped. We tend to view activities and time in discreet segments or compartments, which are to be dealt with one at a time. It is not logical to have two activities going on at the same time. Americans are often frustrated when working with people from polychronic cultures who view time as something fluid, and who easily alter schedules to shifting priorities. In these situations meetings will start late, outside issues may interrupt business transactions, multiple activities may be scheduled at the same time, and adherence to deadlines may depend on the strength of the relationship.

INSERT FIGURE 5 Monochronic/Polychronic Views of Time

o Plan to spend a few extra days in the country you’re visiting, being aware that meetings likely won’t run on the schedule you’re used to. This way you won’t feel frustrated or pressured if the meetings extend overtime.

o Be on time for meetings even if you don’t expect them to start on time. This shows respect for your business associates.

o Expect meetings to start and end late and have many interruptions. Try not to allow it to disturb you. The time together with your foreign colleagues is important for the business even if it does not always feel productive.

o Many times you will need to allow meetings to run their course and resist the urge to get attendees back on track. This frequently happens when you are the guest of a firm overseas. If you are hosting the meeting at your firm you will have more flexibility to guide the meeting according to your standards.

Personal and Physical Space

I have found that different cultures have different rules toward personal space. In the U.S. we tend to feel comfortable talking about a handshake distance away from each other. In Japan the distance is greater – about a bow distance away. But when I work with Latin Americans the distance is much closer. I think it is important to be aware of these social differences so that you don’t move in on a person, forcing them to back away, or, alternatively, if someone moves closer to you, you don’t back away, giving them a feeling of distance. (Dayton, Ohio)

All cultures have unwritten rules on the distance members maintain from one another in face-to-face interactions, in lines, and in public places, according to Hall. Each one of us has a “comfort zone” – an area of physical space around us which we do not wish others to trespass. Understandingly, this distance is fluid and changes depending on who we’re dealing with; you will probably allow a family member to stand much closer than a business colleague. When doing international business, be aware that a member of one culture may be offended if someone from another culture, in which personal distance rules are different, violates the space rules by “invading” his or her space. Americans, for example, when working with a culture with closer comfort range may back away from people in conversations or cringe if they are touched. However, people from cultures accustomed to closer proximity may interpret this as cold or distant behavior.

Different cultures also have different views of physical space, such as what is appropriate in the office environment. For example, Americans tend to work in cubicles, have open offices, and feel that they can freely walk into colleagues’ offices without an appointment. Meanwhile, Germans use a number of heavy doorways, compartments, or corner offices to create barriers to easy entry. At the other extreme, the Japanese are accustomed to sitting directly across from one another in large offices without any walls. To the Japanese, Americans appear to have more barriers because of their cubicle structures and offices.


Here are some suggestions for working with cultures with different space rules:

o Recognize that each culture has its own view of personal and physical space. Try to understand what the norm is in the country you are visiting on business.

o If you feel your space is being invaded in another culture, try not to back away, because the host may view this behavior as cold and impersonal.

o People in cultures that use a closer range of space tend to touch each other more; this is not necessarily intended as a sexual gesture.

o In other cultures, more space between people may be required. Be sensitive to this and back away if necessary to provide your colleagues ample space.

o In some cultures, very limited gestures are used and there is no touching, even during greetings. Do not touch others or even impose yourself with a handshake.

Locus of Control

An American friend of mine recently opened a factory in Taiwan. Although he had lived there for some time and had married a Taiwanese woman, he ignored the prevalent Chinese belief system known as “Feng Shui” when planning his building. According to many Chinese and Taiwanese, following the many rules of Feng Shui can determine the future success of a company by telling builders such details as where to locate the building and which direction it should face, how doors and windows should face, where to put desks and chairs, and even which opening day will be most lucky. When my friend’s business opened, the workers would not enter the building because it faced in an unlucky direction and because they believed it was an unlucky opening day. He had to bring in a Feng Shui expert advisor and rebuild part of the building to face properly, then open again on a lucky day. (Palo Alto, California)

Research, especially that of Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, has shown that cultures operate with widely varying beliefs about their own power in a situation, relative to the power of their environment. Americans, for example, generally view themselves as being in control of their environment – having internal control. If they work hard they will overcome obstacles and direct the outcome of their destiny through initiative and drive.
People in some other cultures tend to believe that external forces – such as Feng Shui, fate, God, government, and nature — control what happens to them. In such cultures individuals believe that there is very little or nothing a person can do to control one’s own destiny, and thus much is left to fate. As a result, a culture may view business in terms of adjusting to unpredictable and uncontrollable environmental causes (“It is God’s will.”) rather than managing the process to make it more predictable.

INSERT FIGURE 7 Locus of Control

Here are some guidelines for working with cultures that view themselves as not having control of their environment:

o Listen to your counterpart and gather data on his perspective instead of jumping to conclusions or formulating an opinion.

o Be flexible to changes that might occur in circumstances that you can’t objectively understand.

o Be open to unpredictable situations which may be attributed to “God’s will” or some other external force that the individual believes is outside of his control.

Time: Past, Present and Future

I recall working in the purchasing department of a Silicon Valley firm where we bought computer monitors from various suppliers in Japan, Italy, Canada and Taiwan to make our products. As an American firm, we were very tied to production and delivery deadlines, and we let our suppliers know the dates the monitors needed to arrive to allow shipment of our products. I quickly learned that “due date” meant different things in different countries: While the Japanese orders came right on time, the first Italian shipment I ordered was over a week late and was not complete. I called the company to see what had happened, and the Italians were very surprised. “What’s a few days late?” they asked. “Next time maybe we will send it a few weeks early. And so the quantity is a little low this time? Next time maybe we’ll send a little more.” (Cupertino, California)

When you are developing a business relationship with another culture, it is important to understand their perception of time, deadlines and urgency. Often time is not perceived or valued in the same way as it is in the U.S. According to researchers Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, cultures may be oriented toward the past, the present or the future.

Americans, at one end of the spectrum, tend to emphasize the future, always anticipating that it will be bigger and better than the present. Americans tend to view change as a forward movement and therefore see change as desirable, and they tend to put a high priority on goals and accomplishments. In fact, many Americans would like to foresee the future so they could take advantage of impending opportunities or events.

Conversely, many cultures try to preserve the past. They tend to be pessimistic about change, and therefore wary of the future. This is particularly true in cultures that are conscious of their long histories and do not want to sever the connections to their past. Still other cultures would prefer to not see into the future so that it can’t then cause undo worry or pain, while other cultures see the individual as a victim of his environment, and therefore prefer to live day-to-day, or in the present.


Here are some tips on how to work with other cultures that do not view time in the future:

o Americans, as they speed toward the future, often appear patronizing or blunt in international business and this can increase sensitivities with colleagues from another culture.

o Take time to understand and appreciate the traditions and history of the culture you’re visiting. You can do this by making time to visit historic sites during your trip.

o Do not try to change the pace of work in another culture or comment on it negatively; rather, slow down and meet that pace.

Activity Levels

At my last firm I established many relationships with the Japanese. One particular relationship I cultivated over the phone, and then I had to go and visit my Japanese counterparts for the first time so that we could close a contract face-to-face, as they requested. In true American style, I was sent to Japan for only three days. My Japanese associates met me at the airport and took me out for a long dinner, saying they were so happy to meet their “good, hard-working, American friend.” In order to make full use of our time, I pulled out my agenda and list of questions to cover in the three days. They graciously took it and said not to worry. The next day I arrived at the local office very eager to get going on the contract, but found that the Japanese had arranged for their “good, hard-working, American friend” to tour the sites of Kyoto. So off we went, seeing the sites. That night they had an elaborate cocktail party and I met more members of the firm, but by this time I was very upset and worried that maybe they were not taking me seriously or that I would have to go home empty-handed. I mentioned my concerns to my counterpart, who said not to worry, and off we went to dinner. At dinner, the highest ranking person in the firm was present, and I was given very special treatment. He proposed a toast “to our very good, hard-working, American friend,” and they presented to me a signed contract and the necessary details from my agenda so that when I went home it looked as though we had worked very hard during my stay in Kyoto. (Santa Clara, California)

Cultures also vary in terms of activity levels, as described by researchers Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, ranging from slow and unplanned to tightly-scheduled and overly-planned. Americans tend to be very efficient and action-oriented, planning and completing many goals and activities, and enjoying accomplishments. We expect every meeting to have a purpose, every agenda to have a result. Other cultures, including Japan, allow more time for unplanned activities and emphasize relationships more than achievements. In such cultures, it is often the time you invest cultivating relationships that later may help overcome obstacles in business negotiations.