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Roger Seip Co-founder
Translating cultural differences
by On December 21, 2016

Businesses are eager to expand across borders and technology is making this process easier. Many companies are taking advantage of opportunities in the global market and conducting business on a multinational level. These businesses have learned that there are important cultural differences that affect their communication and business strategies both at home and abroad. Even businesses that don’t operate abroad will encounter cultural differences and diversity. Language is an obvious barrier, but simply translating your messages will not be enough to bridge the cultural gap. It’s important to understand how culture impacts the way society approaches nonverbal communication, time management and speech patterns.

Nonverbal communication

First impressions are often solidified before the customer, business partner or employer opens his or her mouth. Nonverbal communication and body language say a lot about someone as an individual and about the culture from which they come. Think about the difference between someone who uses big hand gestures in conversation versus someone who is more reserved and timid. Some cultures value eye contact, while others view it as disrespectful and aggressive. South American cultures generally stand close to people. This proximity can make people from the U.S. or Northern Europe uncomfortable. 

Cross cultural greetings

Greeting people from another culture is the first test when it comes to cross cultural interactions. Do you introduce yourself with a kiss, a bow or a handshake? The answer depends on the person with whom you’re meeting. In Latin American cultures, expect some kind of physical contact. Kissing on one or both cheeks is a normal greeting in Spain, Belgium and France, but the number of kisses will vary. People from Japan often include a slight bow as part of their customary greeting. Some countries exchange gifts, while others place a high value on business cards. 

Time management

Time management is another area that reflects cultural differences. Some people tend to view time as a rigid structure where deadlines and appointments are highly valued. Tardiness comes across as offensive and rude. Other cultures have a more fluid appreciation for schedules. People from this cultural background see meeting times as a guideline. They are less likely to be prompt and more likely to understand if you’re running late to an appointment.

Linear vs. circular time conceptualization

There are two basic concepts of time. People generally either view time in a linear fashion or a circular concept. The linear frame is characterized by future-orientation and compartmentalized schedules. Time is something you can save, waste or borrow.  People who view time from a circular perspective tend to be more flexible and focus on the present. Instead of thinking about a timeline, cultures that conceptualize time as circular think about seasons and the circle of life.

Speech patterns

Cultural differences are vocalized in the way people speak. Language barriers aside, some cultures are more likely to raise their voice and passionately discuss their ideas as opposed to having quiet conversations. Business owners who are not aware of these differences between speech patterns can come across as rude and loud or timid and weak. While some cultures value direct verbal communication, others prefer a softer approach.

Mitigated speech

Mitigated speech is an indirect approach to communicate using soft words. This kind of speech tries to lessen the impact of your words so they seem less harsh. “Maybe we should turn left” sounds a lot different than “Turn left.” People who mainly communicate with mitigated speech can easily be overpowered in business negotiations. People who do not use mitigated speech can easily come across as intimidating and unpleasant, potentially damaging business relationships.   

Businesses are connecting with consumers and markets around the world. Whether they’re expanding their strategies to a multinational level or reaching out to an increasingly diverse population, business owners need to understand the role of cultural differences in professional and personal relationships. There’s no direct translation for communicating cross culturally. Immersing yourself in the nonverbal communication, time management and speech patterns of another culture will help you bridge cultural gaps to form meaningful business connections.