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International Business: How Culture Influences Communication

When it comes to human interaction, it’s all about communication. Without communication, there can be no international business either. People speak and act out of their cultural backgrounds, and thus shape the global dynamic context. 

Communication can be regarded as a dynamic process of meaning creation: Person A and B establish a specific field of meaning through their use of verbal and nonverbal symbols. Therefore, communication is much more than the simple exchange of information. Rather, it involves the negotiation of a relationship between two or more people, based on symbols. Each communication episode is unique, and every relationship between people is distinctly formed.

Regardless of where you live or to what part of the world your career takes you, knowledge of international business is a vital key to success. For more information on what international business is, first read this blog article: International Business – The Basics.


In international business, language plays a key role when communicating

One of the basic components of communication is, of course, language. Many people think of language in terms of the official tongue spoken in a particular country or by an ethnic group of people. However, this understanding of language does very little to account for the cultural nuances that underlie a language.

There are over 6,900 languages spoken in the world. While many of these can be grouped into language families (e.g. Indo-Germanic languages: English, Dutch and German), which share similar roots, history or culture, each language has idiosynchrasies based on its cultural background. Hence, language use can vary considerably from one country to the next – even within the same original language (e.g. English in the USA vs. in Britain vs. in Australia etc.).

A useful concept in this regard is linguistic relativity: the idea that people who speak different languages see the world differently based on the language they use to describe the world. What this means is that our language shapes our reality. And our reality is in turn reflected by our language. Consider idioms, for instance: If you say, “This is a piece of cake!”, it might cause confusion among non-native speakers.

Idiomatic expressions such as metaphors are the result of the cultural influence on a language. An idiom can be defined as an expression established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the individual words. Apart from its cultural context, it might not make any sense. Certainly, a literal translation into another language will not work in this case.

A holistic approach to language thus considers the cultural meaning tied to communication rather than depending on a series of words detached from their common usage.

This article is based on the following eBook:

Introduction to International Business

People, Places, and Ideas

Introduction to International Business: People Places, and Ideas examines of the economic, social, and logistical aspects of global business.


Communication: More than words

As if intercultural communication wasn’t already tricky enough with regard to linguistic and cultural differences, yet another important aspect plays a major role: nonverbal communication. Multinational business people must be especially mindful of all those messages which are relayed through means other than words.

Nonverbal communication accounts for more than 90 % of all communication! And nonverbal signals are also culture-based. What is considered polite or friendly in one country may be construed as obscenity somewhere else.

Even members of a single language community experience conflict and misunderstanding through the day-to-day expressions of a glance, a gesture, or tone of voice. How much greater, then, is the potential for misunderstanding in multicultural environments?

In order to leave as little room as possible to miscommunication, international business people should research the specifics of nonverbal communication in other cultures. Ask yourself: What’s the typical greeting ritual (bow, handshake, hug, kisses etc.)? Are there any gestures that mean something entirely different in the other person’s country? How much touching or eye contact is considered polite?
These are just a few of the culture-specific aspects of nonverbal communication. All these unwritten “rules” may impact the success of your business relationships.


Learn more on the cultural influence on communication and download William Wardrope’s eBook Introduction to International Business!


Christine Funk

Marketing & Social Media Manager

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