Making Cultural Differences Work in Your Business

Copyright Kit Lum. All rights in all media reserved.

Advancements in technology have made the world so much smaller, don’t you think? We used to be separated by mountains and oceans, color and culture.

But now on the highways and byways of the internet, we’re but a single mouse click away. Think about this for a moment. You and I may be thousands of miles away at opposite ends of the globe, but on the net, we may as well be sitting across a coffee table.

The internet’s really one huge melting pot of people, ideas, culture. Just take a look at any forum or message board and you’ll see what I mean. So if you’re going to be doing business on the internet, you should consider that your business will be open to the world, and you’re going to be serving customers from the West Coast to the Far East, and everywhere in between.

I know many of us have this idea about starting small, and so we start out thinking we’ll only be dealing with local or domestic customers, the people in our neighborhoods, our city, our country. So the issues of cultural and business differences were not something we spent too much time worrying about.

Sure, as a start-up, the bulk of your business may initially come from your local marketplace, and your customers are likely people who speak like you, live near you and do business the same way you do yours.

But hey, wait a minute, take a good look around your community and chances are you’ll see a pretty diverse group of people. Unless, of course, you live in some place like the South Pole where the only other person in your neighborhood is… well, yourself!

Running a business on the internet is not quite the same as operating a small retail shop at your local shopping mall. On the internet, you are for all intents and purposes opening your business to the world. Like it or not. And when that happens, it’s important to note some points about international business.

1. Not every one speaks English. While it’s impossible to give a simplistic figure for how many people in the world speak English, estimates put the percentage of people whose mother tongue is English at 7% of the world’s population. The percentage of the world’s population who speak English as a second language is estimated at 30%.

A quick bit of math here tells us that over half the people we come across in our business dealings may not even speak English.

2. When dealing with people from vastly different cultural backgrounds and business practices, it’s best to remain patient and polite at all times. It never hurts to pepper your communication with ‘thank you’s’ and ‘please’s’. Common courtesy can go a long way in customer relations.

3. Keep your language simple at all times. No jargon, no fancy sentence structures please. Just say what you mean as clearly and as simply as possible. The objective is to be understood, not to win the Nobel Prize for creative communication.

4. In times when it’s not clear to you what the other party means, it’s best to seek clarification. Paraphrasing can be quite handy in confirming your understanding of what the other person means – simply rephrase what you think is being said with a simple question at the end asking if you’ve understood right.

5. If you’re on the phone, speak slowly and clearly. It’s entirely okay to repeat, paraphrase, and ask. Make allowances for the other party to do the same as well. Misunderstandings can be costly in terms of time and money, so save yourself the inconvenience and profit margin.

6. Not everyone is in your time zone, so do allow for slight delays in terms of timing. If you’re planning something in real time (such as an online event), find a time that’s convenient to all or at least the majority. For example, if you’re planning to call someone in another part of the world, it’s good customer service not to plan to call someone at some unearthly hour.

So there, we’re all set to hit the international business scene. And when the going gets tough, it helps to remember three things:

someone somewhere is having or has had a similar experience,

it’s all part and parcel of business,

once you get the hang of working around cultural differences, you can only get better.

And the best part about all of this is you get to reap the rewards of the global marketplace.