Why Culture is Important in International Business

Denise HummelGuest Author:
Denise L. Hummel – Universal Consensus

Editor’s Note:  We are especially pleased to welcome our first Guest Author, Denise Hummel, who contributed the piece that follows on the importance of culture in international business

Doing business on a global basis requires a good understanding of different cultures.  What works in your country might not work well in another, and could even be interpreted as an insult!  And in your role as an international human resources professional, it’s important to raise the awareness of cultural issues within your organization to ensure effectiveness.

Consider the following basic questions:

When George Bush gave Chinese Premier Li Peng a gift of cowboy boots embroidered with the American and Chinese flags, was it an appropriate gift?

  1. Yes, a thoughtful sentiment and a keepsake appropriate to the occasion
  2. No, a significant miss on the part of administration protocol experts
  3. Yes, a good choice, if only he had known the Premier’s correct shoe size

Answer: 2. 

Unfortunately, in China, the soles of the feet are considered to be the lowliest part of the body and gifts of footwear, no less embossed with the nations’ respective flag, was a significant miss on the part of administration protocol experts.

When formalizing a deal in the Middle East, it is imperative to

  1. Determine that the contract is iron clad with strict attention to jurisdictional issues of international law to secure a just outcome should there be conflict
  2. Solidify the interpersonal trust relationship as this rapport is critical both during the deal and if conflict develops
  3. Retain legal counsel in the country in which the business undertakings will primarily take place and ensure that this attorney has a golfing relationship with most members of the judiciary.

Answer: 2.

When doing business in the Middle East, the surest indicator of a successful business relationship has very little to do with the content of the contract or the extent to which the language will hold up in court.  Court systems in many of these countries move slowly with inconsistent results, and your business counterparts in many Middle Eastern countries do not put their faith in the legal system to determine the outcome of a conflict.  Absolutely essential to the success of the deal is the interpersonal rapport and relationship established during the negotiation stage and at every point thereafter.  Failure to understand and cultivate this aspect of the deal increases the risk of failure to a critical degree.

In sending an email to a Japanese colleague with whom may wish to collaborate on a potential business deal, you would be most successful if you

  1. Begin the email by addressing the individual warmly and openly, by his first name, immediately closing the cultural gap
  2. Always use Mr. , Miss or Mrs. followed by the last name of the individual, followed by an embracing and forthright interaction
  3. Use the last name, followed by the term “sama” to address your email, followed by clear text set forth with the utmost formality.

Answer: 3.

The risk of email is that it lacks certain social contextual cues such as body language, eye contact and intonation and can therefore create misunderstandings.  There is also no way to see the demeanor or reaction of your counterpart and adjust your communication strategy to compensate for a misunderstanding once it is created.   When in doubt, it is always safer to err on the side of greater formality and deference.  The Japanese have become accustomed to making allowances for informal communication from other countries, but you will proceed with more credibility if you make a sincere effort to adapt to their customs.  The use of the term “san” and, for those in a position of high authority, “sama” is honorific.  Use the last name, followed by the honorific term, followed by extreme clarity and formality in the text, with as few assumptions for context as possible.


The cultural nuances that affect international business obviously go far beyond the ability to greet your international colleague or choose the correct gift.  Issues related to the culture’s time orientation, whether it is an individualist or collectivist society, space orientation, and power distance, not to mention conflict assumptions and non-verbal communication all affect understanding your colleague across the table, as well as your chances of being understood. 

Preparation by a trained expert related to these issues not only assures that unnecessary blunders will be avoided, it brings to each of us a personal knowledge that deepens our understanding of others, thereby promoting acceptance, understanding, and on the level of international relations, peace and prosperity.

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