Culture over language

Which is a higher barrier to doing business in a foreign country–culture or language?  The easy answer is language.  Nuances are lost in translation, literally; language incompatibilities slow business down; mistakes get made. As Americans, some of us just speak louder and wonder why everyone’s else English is not perfect, while others brush up on their high school German or take night classes in Mandarin. We hire translators or seek out native speakers to put on our payrolls.

But the real challenge is overcoming the barriers of culture. I don’t mean xenophobic barriers, real or imagined, rather the barriers of not understanding a culture.  Humor is an obvious area where even if translated properly, most humor requires some level of shared schema to properly understand.  Metaphors are another area where language fluency does not translate into truly understanding.

Major issues however tend to come from the interpersonal dynamics.  Much has been writen on the East Asian concept of “face”  and how o present business cards in Japan.  But many a project has been  damaged by a western project manager  hearing a Chinese engineer say “yes” and mistakenly believing this means “yes, I agree,” rather than “yes, I heard what you said.”  In Sweden it’s easy to pick up that a night of drinking is a good cultural bond, all to waste if one sets one’s vodka glass down before the hostess.

It’s also easy to play cultural tourist, and it rarely goes over well.  A Brit mimicking a “howdy thar” in Texas is about as ineffectual as a Yank saying “G’day mate” to his Australian colleagues. All speaking the same language.

The solution? Take time to learn the culture as well as the language.  Read a local paper; watch local TV; talk to locals.  Pay attention to what people really say, not just the cliches.  Learn when to switch from bonjour to bonsoir in France; learn when it’s proper to switch from Sie to du in Germany; and learn when to add a second yes while in China, in Mandarin or in English. And understand that the answer may be different in Quebec than in Paris; in Vienna than in Berlin; in Singapore than in Shanghai. So ask questions: about the culture–everyone loves telling others about their culture; and for clarification if something is lost in the cultural translation.



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