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Why do Exporters Need to Understand Language and Culture?


Globalisation, internationalisation and trans-border trade are all terms that have been coined over the past decade(s) to reflect the reality of international trade.

Although international trade has long been in operation, the scale, frequency and speed at which it is conducted today is incomparable.

This article offers first time exporters and SME's some initial advice on how to capitalise upon cross cultural know-how in order to get one step ahead in the export game.

It will look at the two key areas all companies must address to crack foreign markets

  1. language and
  2. cultural awareness.

1. Language in Export

The use of language is critical to export business success in two distinct ways. The first being the use of written language in materials such as leaflets, manuals and websites. The other is the use of foreign languages to communicate with international clients.

a. Translation

If you have a product/service that you feel can sell well outside your country, you need to be able to present it in foreign languages. You should not expect everyone in the world to be able to read, write and speak English.

There are certain key facets of your business and product/service that must, as a rule, be translated. These include business cards, company brochures, leaflets, emails, websites and of course information about your product such as manuals.

Let's look at a couple of these aspects, namely the business card and websites.

1. Despite technological advances there exists one item that remains constant when doing business across the world - the business card. Although the business card has lost its importance in Western cultures, there's still considerable value placed on business cards in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. As such it's a good idea to ensure you translate your business card into the local language if you're making physical trips. This gives you two immediate benefits. Firstly, the recipient will always be able to find you as they can understand your card.

2. Secondly, the translated business card will always make a greater impression to the receiver as you are saying, "I respect your language and culture and have thought through how to better our relationship." A translated website is an amazingly economical yet productive means of attracting foreign custom.



b. Speaking a Foreign Language

Communication is the fundamental starting point for any business relationship or transaction. If a common language does not exist the chances of any successful business occurring is slim.

Businesses now more than ever need to invest in multilingual staff. The ideal scenario is that the main people behind a company either know or learn a language.

However, this is not easy. An alternative solution is having staff who can speak to foreign clients on the phone or via email in their own language. This capability dramatically increases the revenue potential of any business.

2. Cultural Awareness in Export

Cultural awareness or cultural intelligence is increasingly being viewed as a critical skill in securing success on the international stage. With more people from culturally diverse backgrounds meeting within the business environment, clear and effective communication is necessary between them. Culture can and does still cause problems.

The business world is littered with gaffes and cultural faux pas that have had negative consequences.

Take the case of the American manager who shouted at Indonesian staff and was duly chased with axes or the Australian executive who planted a kiss on his Muslim client's wife's cheek and lost his company millions of dollars in business. Not having an understanding of cultural differences can be a risky business.

Although there are many areas one could learn in terms of cultural awareness there are some key points the exporter or SME must get to grips with. These include areas such as how to meet and greet people, the use of names, body language, building relationships, giving presentations, negotiating and entertaining.

With a greater awareness of different cultures a person immediately becomes more effective in doing business abroad. Having an insight into how another culture thinks and behaves allows one to tailor their approach and hence maximise their potential.

Let us take a simple scenario. Two business people travel to China to start talks on a joint venture with a Chinese company. One goes with lots of preparation on their presentation offering concrete statistics, future projections and the like. They have no knowledge of how business is done in Chinese business culture. The other takes cultural awareness training and learns not only the protocol of meetings, gift giving and negotiating but also that business in China depends on guanxi (having good connections). As a consequence he contacted a reputable middle man to introduce him to the company.

Now who do you think would be more successful? Clearly the latter as he has learnt the rules of the game. Cultural awareness can and does give people real competitive advantage. For the exporter or SME using such cultural awareness appropriately can pay off in the long run.


The common phrase you hear today suggests the world is getting smaller. This implies we are all having an easier time communicating with each other. Incorrect. As the world "becomes smaller" the opportunity to communicate is greater and as a result the challenges this poses are also greater.

For businesses wishing to genuinely capitalize on internationalization a well thought out strategy that includes a cross cultural element must be drawn up and implemented. Competition is great and one of the easiest yet most effective ways of getting ahead of the rest is to use language and cultural knowledge to your advantage.

Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

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