Culture shock – Learning to do business in new environments


I’m learning Mandarin at the moment. It’s tough, but for me it’s well worth the effort – it’s all a part of sinking myself ever more deeply into the culture in which I’m living and working every day. Making an effort to learn the native language of many of the business people who I meet and work with on a daily basis seems to me to be a no-brainer: it is a show of respect to them, but it’s also helping to give me an invaluable insight not just into the Chinese language, but something far deeper than that.

Getting a clearer picture

Why? Well, I really do believe that understanding and being able to talk to people in their own language is a fundamental first step in learning to do business in a new environment, because language informs so much more than just being able to communicate at a basic level. Having a working knowledge of a language also helps you to understand a country’s culture itself – and for business people, it helps also you to get a firmer grip on a market that might otherwise seem to be quite opaque.

Which leads me on to the other fundamental driver for me to learn Mandarin – that it helps to strengthen the new relationships I’m trying to forge in the course of my business dealings. Language defines us in many ways, not least in the way we approach other people. Business is driven by personal relationships and by mutual respect, and making an effort to learn someone’s language is a great way to strengthen these links. People from any cultural background will appreciate the efforts that you are making to understand them better.

As with most things in the world of business, communicating your intentions clearly is absolutely key. Having an understanding of their language opens the door for you into a deeper knowledge of the way that different cultures might perceive the world of work.

Cultural perceptions

But what are the other factors that you should bear in mind when you’re trying to do business in a culture that is different from yours?

For me, beyond effective communication, it also comes down to understanding how people in different countries see the workplace, and how this perception directly effects their behaviour. There are a hundred and one examples out there of people making serious cultural faux pas in meetings, simply because their words or actions have been lost in translation along the way.

So, do the ground work before you go into any new business environment. How do people address each other there? Do they use first names, surnames or formal titles? How do they dress for meetings? What is their take on punctuality? And then, most importantly, how do these differences in business etiquette translate into real behaviours, and into the attitude that people from this culture have to the world of work?

Different cultures have their own take on work/life balance too, that directly informs the way that they will interact with you in the workplace – for example some cultures may respect someone more for leaving early to spend time with their families, while others may not.

The art of deal making

Of course one of the most important areas in which it is essential to get a firm understanding of cultural differences is negotiation. For example, does their language allow them to easily give you a firm ‘no’ in a business conversation? In China, as in many Asian countries, disagreement is often expressed non-verbally, in a much more roundabout way than it might be in say the USA or Europe. Clearly this could have huge implications if you are in the middle of trying to negotiate a deal. Or again in China, you may find that the meaning of what someone is saying is often left to be implied, rather than baldly stated – meaning that the things that are left unsaid are often as important as those that aren’t. Do you understand what role hierarchy plays in their business culture? And when is it acceptable – or not – to show emotion in a business context in this new environment?

Knowing the language and having some kind of appreciation for all of these kinds of subtleties can potentially make or break any business deal – making working in a new culture a daunting, but exciting prospect.

Robert Weider 

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