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Cultural Awareness in Business Communication


Communicating clearly is crucial if you want to hit your targets on the global stage.

Learning how to shape your message and adapt your delivery to the audience, makes you more effective.

In this article, we’re going to highlight the need for cultural awareness in business communication.

Along the way, we will be answering commonly asked questions such as:

  • Why do different cultures communicate differently?
  • What do I need to know about cultural differences in business communication?
  • How does cultural awareness help improve my communication skills?


First, let’s quickly establish the framework in which we’re going to analyse communication and culture.


Direct and Indirect Communication Cultures


Understanding communication across cultures


For the simple purpose of exploring differences, we’re going to split cultures into being either DIRECT or INDIRECT in how they communicate.

Direct communication cultures believe being honest and truthful is essential when delivering information/opinions.

They don’t mind saying things to people that may compromise feelings, especially if there is a task to complete or similar.

You often find that most direct communication cultures are English speaking such as the USA, Australia and Canada.

Indirect communication cultures however believe maintaining harmony and protecting feelings is essential when delivering information/opinions.

They prefer not to say things that could upset people or cause confrontation. You often find that most indirect communication cultures are in ethnically homogenous nations such as Thailand, Japan and S. Korea.

We’re now going to learn how these two different approaches to communication are shaped, or not, by certain values.

* Remember, we are just generalising in this blog as a way of exploring differences. We’re not saying everyone from a culture/country is the same. Read more about avoiding stereotypes here.


International business person's face


The first value we’re looking at is that of face.

Face broadly relates to the need to protect one’s name and reputation from shame or embarrassment.

Individuals in cultures where face is a thing will usually make efforts to protect both their own face or reputation as well as that of others.

In such cultures, people tend not to say what they think and instead say things that will maintain everyone’s feelings and face.

Their real feelings are more likely to be hidden with clues given in their body language and what is not said. It is left to others to interpret the underlying message.

This concept is particularly prevalent in the Asian and African cultures to varying degrees. Arab cultures, for example, are highly sensitive when it comes to protecting face. As a result, in all these cultures you generally find an indirect form of communication.

Other cultures place much less value on face. In Germany, Finland and the Netherlands it doesn’t play even a fraction of the role it plays in face cultures.

As a result, there is less need to be cautious with language and how you speak with people. As everyone prefers a transparent communication style, people don’t hide away meanings and tend to say what they are thinking.


Image of business stability


Let’s now move on and instead look at how our different perceptions of stability differ across the world and how these perceptions translate into different communication preferences.

We generally find that cultures that are more direct tend to place less emphasis on stability.

They are generally less conservative, not so romantic about the past and they see change as a good thing.

In fact, in certain cases, they may even support revolutionary ideas. Business decisions are generally made for the good of the company and people’s feelings are not necessarily part of the equation. As a result, their communication style reflects this.

Being open, clear and directive helps change happen.

On the other hand, for those cultures that are more indirect, they tend to be more concerned with stability, harmony and maintaining a connection to the past.

The past in fact is important as a way of giving meaning and purpose. Traditions are important and people can be conservative in outlook.

The idea of revolution is seen as unhealthy and to be avoided at all costs, even at the expense of truth. This is not to say that change is never embraced – it is – it just takes a lot longer and the process can be very different.

As a result, their communication style protects stability.


Formal business handshake


The final value we are going to consider is formality.

Formality relates to the value we place on the way in which things are done and with who. This can range from the way in which a handshake is carried out between people or the way in which someone greets somebody else.

It can also extend to more complicated behaviours such as a tea-drinking ceremonies in Japan. The emphasis placed on formality changes in degree from culture to culture and in numerous ways.

For example, people from Australia, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway or Iceland tend to be much more informal in how they behave and in their expectations.

Such cultures value the individual’s right to express themselves as they like; formality is seen as stifling this right and, as such, is emphasised much less in how they behave and communicate.

Furthermore, formality in many of these cultures is often intertwined with status and hierarchy. With many of them being more egalitarian in outlook they see the removal of formalities as also removing signs of status.

As a result, they tend to be more direct in how they communicate as well as much less formal of course.

In cultures where formality is important, we usually find this also correlates with being much more conservative as well as face sensitive.

Society is usually a lot more structured in terms of hierarchy, with everyone having a sense of place.

Formality is seen as a way of preserving this structure which again goes back to the idea of maintaining group harmony. It is in such cultures that we see much more nuanced behaviours around formality and how people should interact.

Take for example the practice of bowing to one’s superiors in Japan. This is an example of the way in which employees demonstrate respect for their boss and company. In these cultures, we tend to find that they are much less direct in how they deliver information and speak to one another.

Learn More About Cultural Awareness & Business Communication

The concepts covered in this article come from our Cultural Awareness eLearning course.

In the course, we explore the impact of the ‘Cultural Lens’ and the risks posed by failing to appreciate other cultures’ points of view.

As well as communication, it also explores many other areas such as teamwork and approach to time.

You can watch the abridged sample version, or for only $15 you can upgrade for full access to the course.

Basic Self-Study Guide to Culture & Communication

If you’re looking for something less high-level, then try our self-study guide to cultural awareness.

It’s a simple booklet/manual taking you through the basic steps of cultural awareness and how it improves your communication skills.

Simply click here to go to the page and use the form to download your copy in secs!


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