A short 4 step guide to cultural fluency for exporters


Students and tourists at festival Holi in India

Students and tourists at festival Holi in India

How we choose to do business in a globally interconnected world matters. Developing understanding about the nuances of culture and how to respond to them through your marketing and communications will help your international business to flourish. Building trust is often the key to sales success, but how do you build trust when you’re trading across borders and you’re not sure about the rules of the game?

The currency of trade

Cultural fluency is a currency – the more of it we have the richer we become, in business, as leaders and in life. Understanding and responding to cultural differences enables exporters to achieve stronger business relationships, leading to improved efficiency and profitability.

Consider the social, economic, political, religious and environmental factors that influence culture and how they may affect how people think, behave, communicate and do business.

Building successful business relationships requires slightly different approaches in different cultures. It’s crucial to take into account different attitudes to:

  • time (punctuality, deadlines, response times)
  • hierarchy, status and attitudes to risk (affecting decision-making, influencing and management and leadership styles)
  • the individual or group (affecting the dynamics of communication in business as well as marketing and advertising).

There are several cultural models that help us understand the complexities of culture and how to adapt our communication style for different cultural contexts. One of the simplest of these models refers to low and high context cultures.

So, for example, a low context culture, such as those of the UK, USA, Germany and Switzerland, is characterised by decision making and communication that is based on logic, facts and figures and treats business as a transactional process. In contrast, high context cultures such as those of Japan, China and many parts of The Middle East, are concerned with long term relationship-building before decisions are reached and business is done. Understanding this allows you to prepare, manage expectations (your own and those of your buyers) and can ease some of the frustrations associated with doing business internationally.

Time is money – or is it?        

Different cultures perceive time differently – the past, present and future have different levels of significance according to culture. These perceptions of time are determined by factors such as religion, history and social practices. Patience and adjustment of expectations may be needed when doing business in cultures where attitudes to time are different. These are of course generalisations, as variation occurs within any culture due to regional differences, organisational cultures and individual beliefs.

Punctuality in business is important in creating a good impression in UK, Germany, the USA, Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia where expectations are high when it comes to schedules and keeping to deadlines. The assumption is that present actions influence future outcomes and business. Attitudes to time are also influenced by industrial processes which have evolved in the USA and Northern Europe.

Many Asian, Latin American and some Middle Eastern cultures are more concerned with the present – the here and now – and that means investing time in building strong relationships before business can be done. The here and now can be more important than promises made for events that (may or may not) take place in the future.

Watch your language

Language knowledge and awareness is crucial for international trade, and even small efforts can go a long way. Granted, learning to speak a foreign language is challenging, especially for those who do not have existing foreign language competence. But as Nelson Mandela said,

If you speak to a man in a language he understands it goes to his  head; if you speak to him in his own language it goes to his heart.

This speaks volumes about the importance of language in building trust, which is a key element in successful business relationships. Speaking to your international buyers in their language not only eases communication but shows commitment to building the relationship.

There are many ways of addressing language needs that needn’t be costly. It could involve, for example, recruitment of university students who can assist with language and culture-related marketing, market research, sales and customer care tasks that require language skills and cultural knowledge.

It’s important that translation is done professionally; automated translation should be avoided to ensure your copy is presented in the appropriate ‘voice’, accurately and professionally.

Professional translation may not be as costly as you may think. A small investment will reap rewards, enabling you to engage more effectively with your buyers and preserve your brand’s credibility.

A professionally translated, localised, and well optimised website (or language pages within your website) will help your business ‘speak to the heart’ and give you a competitive edge.

But can’t we just rely on English when it appears to be the lingua franca of international business?

Consider this: would you buy from a website that is in a language other than your mother tongue, or, given the choice, would you choose the one in your own language? In the digital age international buyers have an extensive choice of where to buy their products and services from. Give them a good reason to choose you.

According to the All-party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages (2014), it’s estimated that the UK economy loses £48 billion a year in lost contracts because of lack of language skills.  And for those of us who rely on English, let’s not take this for granted – English is a difficult language to learn to speak and write well.

Be mindful of symbolism in your branding

Building an international brand involves building trust through all of your marketing and communications relationships and interactions.

When planning your export communications and marketing strategy, it is useful to consider every communication touch point, be it online, face-to-face, over the phone or through your written interactions.

Your marketing, branding and packaging should take into account your buyers’ expectations, preferences and beliefs. This requires some thorough market research, but getting it wrong could be costly. Colours have different associations – choose red and gold over black and white for Chinese markets; orange for positive, spiritual alliance in Southern Asia; and avoid purple in Brazil (as it’s associated with mourning).

The number 8 and multiples such as 88 and 888 are highly positive in SE Asia, whereas the number 4 is negative and associated with death – important to know if your standard packaging normally contains four items – many companies have failed to sell products (beer, crockery, golf balls..) packaged as four-packss in these markets.

Be mindful of the colours, numbers and symbols used in your branding too – be aware of cultural sensitivities to gender and the status of women in society and how they should be portrayed in media and advertising. Even visuals of plants, flowers, and animals used in designs and logos might just create the wrong brand message.  Do your research!

There are many more dimensions to cultural fluency that enable us to thrive in business, our careers and life in general. Watch this TEDx Talk to further explore the fascinating world of intercultural communication and how it applies to fulfilling our potential as individuals and leaders of communities, teams, organisations and even nations.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Sara Knowles

Sara Knowles is an International Trade Adviser and a specialist in helping companies to overcome language and cultural barriers. Based in Manchester UK, Sara is passionate about helping people to grow sustainable international businesses which challenge 'the norm' and have global reach. She provides specialist advice for exporters on overcoming language and cultural barriers, strategic export planning, communications and marketing. She writes and speaks about intercultural skills, the case for languages in business, for careers, social inclusion, economic growth, brand-building and marketing.

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