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Trade and Intercultural Communication

Being able to communicate in business is an important part of learning English.

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Pre-reading: You have just landed a job in an international company. Your English is good and you feel confident that you can easily communicate with anyone, anywhere. But what else do you need to know to do a good job in an international environment?

Trade and Intercultural Communication


There is an ever-increasing contact between people from different cultures, which means that we must understand the differences in the way others think and act. This is especially important in business, as mistakes can lead to major deals falling through. This article deals with different cultural aspects around the world and how important it is to be aware of the cultural background of a business partner. After reading go to the related story about salesman Jo Halliwell and do the assignment.

Two Types of Cultures

Deal-focused cultures are typical of the English-speaking countries, the Nordic countries and the German-speaking cultures while relationship-focused cultures are those of African, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Asian countries. Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and France tend to be moderately relationship-focused. Thus, Norway is in the minority and Norwegians will need to understand relationship–focused cultures when dealing with many countries. However, it is just as important not to stereotype (to say that all members of a culture think and act the same), but to be aware of possible differences. Thus, do your homework about other cultures and then be aware of individuals’ behavior to see if they follow the general pattern.

Deal-focused Cultures

People from these cultures tend to be open to dealing with strangers and will accept inquiries from people whom they have never met, called “cold calling.” Conversation is usually direct. People say what they mean and it is acceptable to express disagreement and there is a certain tolerance of conflict. Time is an important concept. Time is money and members of these cultures generally emphasize punctuality and efficiency and get down to business with a minimum of socializing or what is called “small talk” (talking about the weather, or one’s trip, etc.).

However, even deal-focused cultures can vary. Here are some examples from a website,

Norway: “Managers often feel the need to include everybody in the decision-making process and it is seen as important that everybody's point of view is listened to and valued. For people from a culture where management style is much more directive, this slow, consensual approach can be very frustrating.”

USA: “--- American managers are more likely to disregard the opinions of subordinates than managers in other, more consensus or compromise- oriented cultures.”

Norway: "Plain speaking is prized and the more diplomatic approach to communication which can be found in many of the Asian countries, (as well as the UK), can be viewed as evasiveness or even as dishonesty."

Norway: Entertaining: “The person who invites will usually pay the bill and meals can seem strangely formal affairs in a country which is renowned for an informal and egalitarian approach. Both knife and fork are used throughout the meal and visitors may be surprised to see that even open sandwiches will be eaten using these utensils.”

USA: “North Americans tend to only use the knife to cut food items. After the food has been cut, the knife is usually laid down and only the fork is then used. Some foods may be eaten by hand, with both the knife and fork laid to rest.”

Relationship-focused Cultures

People from these cultures feel that time should be taken to develop a relationship before getting down to business. Thus, if business people are not willing to take the necessary time to do this, they will be seen as unfriendly and even impolite. Communication is more indirect to avoid embarrassment and seeming pushy. Particularly in Asian countries where loss of face is to be avoided at all cost, it is important to communicate indirectly. If a Japanese person says, "Yes" it may only mean "Yes I have understood what you said." "That might be difficult" is a polite way of saying "No."

In relationship-focused cultures, business partners who have a strong relationship can sit down together and solve problems rather than bringing in lawyers.

With the above mentioned in mind, read the following account of Mr. Halliwell's business trip and analyze where it went wrong.

Mr. Halliwell's Business Trip

Countries and Cultures

  1. Make a table with the 4 headings: Africa, Europe, Asia, America. Sort the following countries under the correct heading: Afghanistan, Albania, Argentina, Bahrain, Benin, Brunei, Belarus, Brazil, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Djibouti, Eyppt, Ecuador, Estonia, Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Lithuania, Mali, Mexico, Myanmar, Malta, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Namibia, Poland, Philippines, Peru, Spain, Singapore, Tunisia, Uruguay, the United States, Venezuela, Yemen.
  2. Do these countries have deal-focused or relationship-focused cultures? Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Eygpt, Germany, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Philippines, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, USA
Last updated 05/13/2018
Written by: Drew Rodgers

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