RELATIONSHIPS are critical for successful business dealings.

This is especially so in Asia. Relationships flourish when there is good “connectivity” and a high level of trust between the parties involved.

Across cultures though, differences in the style of verbal communication and non-verbal behaviour can lead to breakdowns in trust when players are not aware of the cultural sensitivities of the other party. When cross-cultural mistakes are made, relationships may deteriorate.

It’s how you say it

Let’s look at verbal communication, where the risk of uttering an inappropriate comment has the potential to cause damage.

Cultures that prefer verbal discreteness (indirect and polite) to avoid embarrassment or loss of face are termed “high context” cultures.

These are typically found in Asia, with Japan and Korea being prime examples. Such cultures are adept at properly interpreting indirect messages.

However, “low context” cultures, such as those of North America and some European countries, may decode indirect messages differently, leading to miscommunication. 

For instance, when declining an offer, an Asian might reply: “That would be difficult, let us think about it.”

This, in a “high context” culture, is a strong “no”. But an American might believe that the matter is still up for further discussion and negotiation.

On the other hand, the American, among his own kind, would be more direct and outspoken and perhaps say: “Sorry we are not interested.”

Thus, during such cross-cultural exchanges, without an appreciation of each party’s style of communication, some disharmony could result.

For instance, when the American receives no further feedback or action, he may lose trust in the other party or view them as unreliable.

A Japanese person, on receiving such a “low context” reply may feel affronted or lose face.

This might cause him to lose respect for the American and perceive him as overly brash. Any of his fellow countrymen witnessing such an exchange would feel the same way.

Frames of reference

To reduce the risk of “damaging communication”, sensitivity by both parties to each other’s communication style is therefore required. They should step out of their own cultural frame of reference.

A cultural frame of reference is the position from which you judge other cultures from your own cultural perspective of right and wrong.

With an appreciation of another culture’s frame of reference and some tolerance, unfortunate incidents can be avoided.

The cultural frame of reference concept also extends to other interactions, such as body language and social etiquette.

A rather interesting example is the habit of forming the “OK” hand signal by making a circle with the thumb and forefinger and extending the other three fingers upwards.

In most countries, this is interpreted as “everything is fine”.

However, in France, it means “zero” and a slight variant of the same sign in Japan signals “money”.

And using such a hand gesture in Brazil — where it is considered highly insulting — is a certain recipe for relationship destruction!

Being competent in the social etiquette of other cultures also contributes towards your enhanced personal image.

Displaying proper manners and customs from the cultural perspective of others will earn you their respect and portray you as refined and professional instead of parochial and inconsiderate.

For example, addressing someone using the correct salutation and name is one way of avoiding possible offence.

Frequently, Chinese people, whose family name comes first, often use a Westerner’s given name, thinking this is respectful.

For example, John Smith is mistakenly addressed as “Mr John”. In the Western world, the family name usually appears at the end and “Mr Smith” would be the correct form of address.

Errors created from such name transpositions can result in unfortunate situations when making reservations on behalf of others. For instance, when Mr Smith arrives to take up his booking, it cannot be found as it was entered under Mr John.

At the dining table

When entertaining, the dietary needs of some cultures should be considered.

For Muslims, you should ensure that alcohol is avoided and that halal-certified food is served. Simply offering food that contains “no pork, no lard” may not be sufficient to satisfy the religious tenets of some.

Many Indians are vegetarian and it is advisable to have a number of vegetarian options available for them.

The meaning behind a gift

Consideration should also be given to the suitability of gifts, awards and prizes. People from other cultures sometimes commit the fatal error of presenting Chinese associates with a knife (signifies severance of a relationship) or a clock (death is nearby).

Gift items in numbers of four (for example, a set of tea cups) should not be presented to Japanese, as this number is considered unlucky.

Cross-cultural competency is about stepping out of your own cultural frame of reference when interacting with other cultures. This is best accomplished by acquiring knowledge of issues deemed important to them, respecting them and modifying your behaviour appropriately.

Bridging cultural gaps ensures better connectivity and will lead to stronger, healthier business relationships.