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Listening Activity: Trade, and Intercultural Communication

This listening exercise focuses on how important it is to have cross-cultural competence when working in international trade.
Photo: Adults standing around a table. Some are looking at objects on the table, some look at each other. They are of different ethnicities.
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Listen to the text and take notes in preparation for questions about the text.

Trade, and intercultural communication


Comprehension questions:

  1. Why is it important to be aware of intercultural communication in business?

  2. Which countries have a deal-focused culture?

  3. Which countries have a relationship-focused culture?

  4. Which countries are moderately relationship-focused?

  5. What characterises a deal-focused culture?

  6. What is cold calling?

  7. What is the main difference between a typical Norwegian manager and a typical American manager?

  8. If you are invited to have a meal in a business setting in Norway, what can you expect?

  9. What is typical of a relationship-focused culture?

  10. If you are speaking to a Japanese businessman and he says "That might be difficult", what is the most likely meaning of the statement?

Transcript: Use it only if you have to.

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.

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, worldbusinessculture.com

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.


Work in a group. Discuss the questions below.

  1. How should you prepare for a business meeting with someone from a different culture, or in a different country?

  2. Can cultural misunderstandings occur even when you have a long-standing relationship with a business partner?

  3. In a business setting, what is the best way to handle the situation if someone has behaved in a way that offended you?

  4. What is the best way to act if you realise you have made a cultural faux pas?


Work with a partner or in a group.

Below you will find some stories about the salesman Mr Halliwell.

  • Read the stories and discuss what cross-cultural mistakes Mr Halliwell makes in each story.

  • Then use the internet to find information to confirm or falsify your hypotheses.

  • When you have found out what Mr Halliwell did wrong, suggest what he should have done differently.

Present your findings in class, or by exchanging information in new groups.

Mr Halliwell in Mexico:

– It's 2:30 and I've been sitting in this restaurant for 45 minutes. Mr Alvarez said he'd meet me at 2:00 and he's already half an hour late. I've got all my brochures spread out just waiting to convince him to sign on for at least 25 000 units to start. Ah, here he comes, I think. No, he's going over to a group sitting at another table and shaking hands and kissing women on both cheeks, but then again he's not sitting down. Now he's coming over to my table.

– Mr Halliwell?
– Yes, Mr Alvarez?
– Yes, pleased to meet you. Sorry I'm a little late.
– That's OK. I used the time to spread out our brochures so that you can get a good idea of our new product.
– Yes, but maybe we should have a glass of brandy first.
– Well, normally I don't drink in the afternoon, so if I could get a glass of mineral water ...
– Are you sure you wouldn't like to try our brandy? Actually I think it is the best in the world and I've been in quite a few countries.
– No, I'll just stick to mineral water. I have a long trip ahead of me and I want to pace myself.
– Oh, where are you heading to next?
– Japan, tomorrow.
– Tomorrow? Oh, that's a shame. I was hoping that I could show you around our wonderful city. The architecture is magnificent and the churches and museums are some of the finest in the world – particularly the pre-Columbian museum.
– Well, you know: business is business and time is money. So I'd like to get down to business and show you our new product.

– Oh, just a second. I see a friend has just arrived. I haven't seen him for ages. I'll be right back.
Right back meant fifteen minutes.

– Sorry Mr Halliwell, but I haven't seen Roberto for almost two weeks. Now where were we?
– I was just going to show you our new combination vacuum cleaner, rug cleaner and air purifier and humidifier.
– Oh yes. Oh, here comes my brandy and your water.
– Muchas gracias, he says to the waiter.
– And here's to your health, Mr Halliwell. – Salud!
Mr Alvarez looked at the brochures, but didn't look particularly interested, no matter how much I tried to convince him of the product's innovation, efficiency, and reasonable price, so I returned to my hotel a bit depressed.

Mr Halliwell in Japan:

I arrived in Japan the next afternoon, relaxed in my hotel and had a nice meal, although I had to ask for a knife and a fork. I don't know how these people manage to eat with chopsticks. I arrived at the appointed time for the meeting and my customers were on time. I'm only 30, and Mr Yamamoto must have been twice my age. I guess it takes the Japanese longer to get promotions. Mr Yamamoto briefly mentioned that I was quite young for my position, which I took as a compliment. We exchanged business cards. He took mine with two hands and studied it a bit. I took his and put it in my business card folder. No use in looking at it. I knew his name.

I was ushered into his plush office and served tea by a very attractive secretary who bowed almost to the floor.

– Nice-looking secretary you have, I mentioned, but he only looked down at the floor and said nothing.

I showed him our product and then asked, – Well, what do you think? He hesitated for a long time saying nothing, so I added, – We can make you an introductory offer of 10% off, but he still said nothing so I added, –That's the best offer I've given anyone. He simply said – yes. He then asked me if I would join him for dinner and drinks. I said that I was feeling kind of tired, with the long trip and all that and had planned on going to bed early. He only looked down at the floor again and said nothing.

I couldn't get him to commit to a contract, and finally I said that I would call him the next day to discuss a contract. When I called the next day, his secretary simply said that Mr Yamamoto was suddenly called away on business and wouldn't be back until next week.

Mr Halliwell in China:

The Chinese are a very friendly people. I was invited to a dinner by the mayor, and the press was there. I had many pictures taken with important politicians and business people, shaking hands and smiling for the camera. However, they did not seem very interested in talking business afterwards.

There was a lot of drinking and smoking during dinner, so I finally had to ask the men at my table to please stop smoking. They smiled and laughed but did not seem to understand me. A lot of the dishes were so unusual that I just asked for a big bowl of rice.

The next day, I had a meeting with my connection. He invited me for a meal, but I suggested we go for coffee instead.

As a gift, I had brought some promotional merchandise. I had planned to give some of it away at the dinner, but I still had quite a bit to get rid of, so I gave him four desk clocks with the company logo on them and four large black umbrellas with our logo in silver. I told him he could pass them on to others in the company.

I was able to give him my full business speech. Before we parted ways, we stopped outside an impressive-looking bank building, and he asked a passer-by to take our picture. When I asked him if he would sign a contract with us, he said – maybe in the future. I don't know exactly what more information he will need, but I intend to stay in touch.

Mr Halliwell in Saudi Arabia:

I had scheduled the meeting for 12 o'clock on Friday, so that we could have a nice lunch meeting. I had asked to see the top manager, but he was unavailable. Seems like he was taking an early weekend. As I would not be in the country for long, I insisted on seeing someone. I was handed over to a junior manager, who told me he couldn't make it until later because the time I had suggested was during prayer time.

Although it was a bit late in the day for lunch, I still ordered a nice lunch for us in my suite. I had brought along some expensive Italian white wine as a treat. I am sure it is impossible to come by this in Saudi Arabia.

The man refused the wine, and he asked for coffee. I boiled water in the hotel kettle and gave him some instant coffee, but he didn't drink much of it. I had a nice glass of wine myself, explaining that I needed something refreshing in the heat and dust of the city. We had a nice chat about our product, and he sat for some time in silence afterwards, which I desperately tried to fill with conversation.

When I asked him if he would be returning to the office after the meeting he said 'no', seems like everyone is skipping work early for the weekend.

He thanked me for the presentation and left. I gave him a call on the following Monday, but he was very vague, and refused to commit to a contract.

Mr Halliwell in France:

I went to Paris, which isn't nearly as nice and romantic as people would have you believe. In fact, the French seemed quite rude to me.

I met a manager there who took me out to lunch even before I could present the product, and we spent two hours at lunch. When I started to get out my brochures, he said, – let's enjoy lunch. We can always talk business later. He seemed disappointed when I refused his offer of a "fine Brouilly", which was apparently his favourite wine.

After that, his interest seemed to decline. He wanted to show me the Musée D'Orsay after lunch and I went along even though my interest in Super Clean far exceeds my interest in French painting. He spoke over my whole sales speech with information about French art and architecture; what a bore!

I called him next day, but he declined our offer.


Pick one of the tasks and write a longer text.

  1. Pick a country that has a relationship-focused business culture and research how to do business in the country. Based on what you find, write a short story about a Norwegian who wants to do business in the country.

  2. What do foreigners need to know about doing business in Norway? Research the topic thoroughly and write an article about it. Remember to include a source list.

  3. Read the text "Working in China" in the box below and do further research. Then write a blog post where you offer advice to young people who want to work or study in China.

Working in China:

The hardest part of working in China was that I suddenly could not make myself understood. I didn’t speak or understand any Chinese, and I certainly could not read the language.

When someone spoke to me, I tried to say 'Yīngyǔ' (English) in an inquiring tone, but most of the time people merely shook their head and smiled. Street signs fortunately offered place names in pīnyīn (romanisation of Chinese script) as well as in Chinese writing. Restaurant menus and information in shops were usually not in pīnyīn. Just buying flour seemed an insurmountable task. I remember standing in front of four barrels filled with different white powder with no idea which was which; the hand-written signs meant nothing to me.

'Tīng bu dǒng' (I don’t understand) and 'kàn bù dǒng' (I cannot read) became phrases I used all the time. While I could ask 'duōshǎo qián' (what does it cost?) I usually did not understand the answer. Luckily, many salespeople had calculators so they could show me.

I tried to learn Chinese while I was there, but it was very hard. Even though I speak English well, learning a new language through English proved very difficult.

I also found difficult that even when people were speaking English, they often did not mean what I thought they meant. For example, the word 'maybe' was used a lot as a substitute for the word 'no'. 'Maybe tomorrow' usually meant 'at some point in the future but definitely not tomorrow'. 'Maybe in the future' meant 'no', or a lot of the time 'of course not, you crazy foreigner'. I later learned that, in China, it is considered rude to say 'no' outright.

Being around so many people, and being so noticeable, was very stressful for me. When I walked down the street I could hear people whispering to each other 'lǎowài' (slightly rude slang for 'foreigner'), or hear startled children shouting 'wàiguórén' ('foreigner'). People would also come up to me and ask me to take a picture with them, or offer me Chinese lessons or work at their company. Some even suggested moving in with me to teach me Chinese in exchange for English lessons. It overwhelmed me, so I usually sought the sanctuary and privacy of my apartment. This isolated me from others and made it harder to make friends.

CC BY-SASkrevet av Drew Rodgers og Tone Hesjedal.
Sist faglig oppdatert 21.05.2021


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