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How do cultural attitudes to work affect international business?

Operating in the global marketplace requires an understanding of the nuances related to business attitudes, approaches, and ways of working that exist between different countries and cultures.

Cultivating the ability to adapt in cross-cultural situations is key for interconnected, multinational, global businesses where teams, business partners, customers and markets are spread across the world. Even for organisations without geographically disparate teams, bridging divides within multicultural teams is critically important. After all, cultural backgrounds, values, and expectations relating to workplace etiquette, experiences, and communication styles may be richly diverse.

Why is it important to understand cultural attitudes to business?

Global human resource experts Multiplier identify cultural variation as one of the top challenges in international business.

If an international company fails to take into account the nuances of different cultures – including how they relate to work and business – the number of obstacles to business success, profits and growth is likely to increase. As international business  contexts are likely to become more complex, communication breakdowns may occur and employees and customers alike may feel alienated.

Where cultural differences and attitudes are recognised, understood and managed effectively, cultural barriers to business dealings can be greatly reduced. Cultural awareness and sensitivity – reinforced by high emotional intelligence – bolsters cross-cultural communication, fosters a positive shared business environment, and enables strengths from each culture to contribute to overall business success.

It’s important to learn about the different cultures of countries where you’ll be doing business, so let’s take a closer look at how attitudes can impact different aspects of the workplace.

How does national culture affect international business?

Cultural variations between different countries – and how they intersect with attitudes to work and business – have the potential to impact business relationships and activities in a number of ways. In order to mitigate the business impact of cultural variations, it’s important to firstly understand how different countries engage in business practices and etiquette. 

Here are three examples of how culture can impact business expectations and attitudes.

  • Organisational culture and hierarchy. There are four main types of structure that affect an organisation’s culture: market, clan, hierarchy, and adhocracy. Some cultures feature formal organisational structures that depend on top-down control and rigid levels of authority, where decision-making and business negotiations are the purview of senior management and everyone else is expected to coordinate their activities accordingly. Others favour looser hierarchical structures, with shared, democratic decision-making processes, a more relaxed approach to authority, and less rules governing how team members complete their work.
  • Leadership styles. Different leadership and negotiation styles, and management behaviours can be seen as weaknesses or assets depending on the cultural context. Harvard Business Review shares research indicating that leadership styles are heavily influenced by geographical regions. Findings show leaders who: self-initiate and demonstrate flexibility tend to be more desirable in Scandinavian countries, as well as Western countries on which the UK has substantial influence, and Asian countries that base their governing and economic institutions on the British model. Alternatively, diplomatic leaders who prioritise ‘getting along over getting ahead’ are preferred in Latin America, New Zealand and Sweden. Finally, straight-shooting leaders who favour directness are expected in Northeast Asia and countries like the Netherlands.
  • Business practices. Differences in business practices and ways of working can range from the profound to the minor. For example, the working day typically starts at 9am and finishes at 5pm (and often extends earlier or later) for a North American office worker. However, in Spain and other Mediterranean countries, working hours are often 9am to 1:30pm – with a rest after lunch known as a siesta – and 4:30pm to 8pm.

Other aspects include communication styles, meeting etiquette, level of formality, dress codes, punctuality, as well as gestures and body language.

What is the difference between high-context culture and low-context culture?

The concept of high-context cultures and low-context cultures, developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, refers to the importance of contextual cues and cultural orientations in interpreting meaning and messages.

In low-context cultures:

  • importance is placed on the exact, literal meaning of words
  • communication is direct and explicit
  • individuals prefer being given comprehensive information ahead of a meeting or task (for example, meeting reports, detailed agendas and information packages).

Examples of low-context cultures include Australia, Germany, Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

In high-context cultures:

  • importance is placed on when, where and how people say things, rather than just what is said – or not said
  • information is implicit and embedded in relationships, non-verbal cues/body language and context
  • communication is indirect and implicit
  • individuals prefer face-to-face meetings and long-term, relationship-building opportunities, and mutual understanding is developed via close contact.

Examples of high-context cultures include Japan, South Korea, India, China, Singapore and Indonesia.

No culture is entirely high-context or low-context – and many countries sit somewhere between the two, such as Brazil, Spain, Italy and France. However, the distinction broadly indicates communicative preferences within and across different cultures – and can be invaluable in everything from greeting clients to negotiating deals and partnerships. Leaders should be cognisant of bringing high-context expectations into low-context environments – or vice versa – and be aware of any cultural miscommunications or misunderstanding this may cause. In this way, they can lay the foundations for effective communication.

How can leaders overcome cultural differences and attitudes to work?

Researching countries and cultures goes a long way in helping to understand how to build cross-cultural relationships, as well as not inadvertently disrespecting the customs and beliefs of others.

Learning about cultural diversity while promoting and respecting it in the workplace is a great place to start. It creates a more inclusive environment for doing business, where team members feel comfortable communicating and the benefits of diverse skills, mindsets and perspectives can drive creativity and progress. Investing in business language and cross-cultural and cultural sensitivity training, encouraging open, clear communication, and empowering leadership and management teams to champion cultural understanding and inclusion will all help overcome barriers to business.

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