10 Chapters 10 and 13: Communicating Difference at Work; Globalization and Democracy

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How would you deal with Japanese customers? How would you behave when invited to dinner by a Moroccan customer? Is there any kind of basic “international business behavior”? Would you be able to work for a German company? What about the American way of dealing with the working force? Any businessperson should have an answer for each one of these questions. Daily practice often shows professionals that working abroad or in an international setting is harder than expected beforehand and that academic contents do not seem basic in some specific situations, as in some of those expressed above. It is crucial to learn how to deal with difficult moments that many business people often have when working in an international setting. This week our readings should provide a simple introduction to the art of communicating effectively for business purposes.

By the end of the 20th century, 80 percent of U.S. products were competing in international markets. The direct investment of foreign-based companies grew from $9 trillion in 1966 to more than $300 trillion in 2002. Many products we assume are American, such as Purina Dog Chow and KitKat candy bars, are made overseas. Brands we may think are international, Grey Poupon mustard, Michelin tires and Evian water, are made in the United States.

For managers, having international experience is rapidly moving from “desirable” to “essential.” A study by the Columbia University School of Business reported that successful executives must have multi-environment and multinational experience to become CEOs in the 21st century. The ability to compete in the global economy is the single greatest challenge facing business today. Organizations will want to negotiate, buy and sell overseas, consider joint ventures, market and adapt products for an international market and improve their expatriates’ success rate. All of this involves communication.

Etiquette, manners, and cross cultural, or intercultural communication have become critical elements required for all International and Global Business executives, managers, and employees. As international, multinational, transnational, multi domestic, and global business continues to expand and bring people closer, the most important element of successful business outcomes may be the appreciation and respect for regional, country, and cultural differences.

Learning the skills of proper etiquette, manners, and intercultural communication is very important when conducting business in another culture. In recent years practitioners in a wide variety of fields—scientific cooperation, academic research, business, management, education, healthcare, politics, diplomacy, development, and others—have realized just how important    intercultural communication is for their everyday work. Fast travel, international media, and the Internet have made it easy for us to communicate with people all over the world. The process of economic globalization means that we cannot function in isolation but must interact with the rest of the world for survival. The global nature of many widely diverse modern problems and issues call for    cooperation between nations. Intercultural communication is no longer an option, but a necessity.

Because important decisions in business usually affect citizens of more than one nation, the question of whether communication between people of different nations is effective and whether all parties emerge with the same understanding is of crucial importance. Individuals who deal with people from other cultures want to learn how to improve their performance through improving their communication skills. Numerous resources have sprung up to meet this emerging market in the business, academic and international relations communities: leading authors have written books and articles on the topic; business services provide consultation for improving the conduct of international business; universities and other educational institutions offer programs or degrees in Intercultural Communication; and researchers have established international journals and academic societies specializing in research on intercultural communication.

Working in a global team and dealing with business partners or customers across cultures raises challenges and demands new attitudes and skills. Without the right approach, cultural differences greatly reduce effectiveness in the early stages of a relationship. But active management of the internationalization process and a conscious effort to acquire new skills will release fresh sources of competitive advantage.

In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the success of organizations and their people depends on effective cross-cultural communication.

In all these contacts, there is communication which needs to be as constructive as possible, without misunderstandings and breakdowns. Research on the nature of linguistic and cultural similarities and differences can play a positive and constructive role.
Lack of knowledge of another culture can lead, at the best, to embarrassing or amusing mistakes in communication. At the worst, such mistakes may confuse or even offend the people we wish to communicate with, making the conclusion of business deals or international agreements difficult or impossible.

Donnell King of Pellissippi State Technical Community College provides some examples from the advertising world of how simply translating words is not enough—deeper understanding of the other culture is necessary to translate meaning effectively.

Products have failed overseas sometimes simply because a name may take on unanticipated meanings in translation:

  • Pepsi Cola’s “Come Alive With Pepsi” campaign, when it was translated for the Taiwanese market, conveyed the unsettling news that, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”
  • Parker Pen could not advertise its famous “Jotter” ballpoint pen in some languages because the translation sounded like “jockstrap” pen.
  • One American airline operating in Brazil advertised that it had plush “rendezvous lounges” on its jets, unaware that in Portuguese (the language of Brazil) “rendezvous” implies a special room for having sex.
  • The Olympic copier Roto in Chile (roto in Spanish means ‘broken’)
  • The Chevy Nova in Puerto Rico (no va means ‘doesn’t go’)
  • A General Motors auto ad with “Body by Fisher” became “Corpse by Fisher” in Flemish.
  • A Colgate-Palmolive toothpaste named “Cue” was advertised in France before anyone realized that Cue also happened to be the name of a widely circulated pornographic book about oral sex.

This type of mishap is not an American monopoly: A successful European chocolate and fruit product was introduced into the U.S. with the unfortunate name “Zit.”

Naming a product is communication at its simplest level. The overall implications of intercultural communication for global business are enormous. Take the case of Euro Disney, later renamed Disneyland Paris. For the year 1993, the theme park lost approximately US $1 billion. Losses were still at US $1 million a day in 1994-95. There were many reasons for this, including a recession in Europe, but intercultural insensitivity was also a very important factor. No attention was paid to the European context or to cultural differences in management practice, labor relations, or even such simple matters as preferred dining hours or availability of alcohol and tobacco. Euro Disney signals the danger for business practitioners immersed in financial forecasting, market studies and management models when they overlook how culture affects behavior. Few things are more important to conducting business on a global scale than skill in intercultural communication.

For all these reasons, communication is crucial to business. Specialized business knowledge is important, but not enough to guarantee success. Communication skills are vital.

TED TALK: Valerie Hoeks: Cultural Difference in Business


  1. How many multinational corporations can you name? What is the potential impact of their product (s) in countries like China or India (or in other specific countries)?
  2. Can your workplace be considered multicultural? Why or why not?
  3. At your job (now or in the past), how did you refer to your boss, and vice versa? Is this indicative of a low or high power distance value?
  4. Can you think of any examples of differences related to individualism or collectivism leading to intercultural communication conflicts on the job?
  5. How do you view work? Is hard work a virtue or a necessary evil?
  6. How might different attitudes toward work lead to intercultural communication conflicts?
  7. Have you communicated with someone with limited English proficiency? What strategies did you use? Are there any other strategies that you wish you had thought of then?
  8. What did the authors mean when they said, “To have good intercultural business communication, people need to slow down and sneak up on information”?
  9. How do the communication styles of honesty and harmony differ?
  10. What are some of the etiquette roles at your place of business?
  11. How do you feel about affirmative action policies? Do you think they are helpful or harmful to minorities?
  12. What are some of the reasons companies address affirmative action and diversity issues?


GSC Library Article:

Chitakornkijsil, P. (2010). Intercultural communication challenges and multinational organization communication. International 

     Journal Of Organizational Innovation, 3(2), 6-20.



Clarke, C.C., Lipp, G.D. (1998). Conflict resolution for contrasting cultures. Training and Development, 52: 15.

Garcez, P. M. (1993). Point-making styles in cross-cultural business negotiation: A microethnographic study. English for Specific Purposes, 12(2), 103-120.

Sanchez, J., & Stuckey, M. E. (1999). Communicating culture through leadership: One view from Indian Country. Communication Studies, 50, 103-115.


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Organizational Communication by Julie Zink, Ph.D is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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