Across the cultural divide When ignorance is not bliss


A business man was to give a presentation in China. His advisor and translator on the trip had warned him not to include any jokes in his talk since the Chinese don’t use humor in business presentations, as the humor could easily be misinterpreted.
But when he gave his talk, he included two jokes in the introduction. The crowd seemed to laugh at the right parts so he thought everything had gone very well.
At the end of the talk, as he took his seat, he noticed that his translator was fuming.
“What’s your problem?” he asked. “The jokes went over very well. Don’t be mad at me because I proved you wrong.”
“They weren’t laughing at your jokes,” his translator said. “When you started telling your stories, the Chinese translator for the group told them, ‘The American is telling a joke now. Please laugh when I give you the signal.’ ”
I embellished this story a little to make a point – that cultural differences are real. Ignorance of those differences, or failure to respect them, can be costly in international business.
The situation mentioned above is not uncommon in the world of international business.
From my own experience I have observed a lack of appreciation on the part of many US management teams of how different business styles in other cultures influence the way business is carried out. Many US managers going overseas for the first time do their normal preparation, but take no time to consider the potential problems that could be caused by misunderstandings over cultural differences.
Training programs on cultural differences are starting to gain the attention of business owners. However, even in places that you would not expect, there seems to be a belief that cultural differences are not an issue because of the use of English in most international business settings.
Recently I attended a one-day conference on international business at a leading university. One of the professors from the business school was asked if he did anything differently when he was overseas. His answer was, “No. I’ve found that if you treat everybody the same and be fair that things will go smoothly.” I later discovered that he had never in his career entered into any difficult cross-cultural business negotiations.
The problem with what he said is that even a slight gesture made in a complimentary way may be interpreted by the another culture as a gross insult.
A phrase or word common in American talk may be interpreted with the exact opposite meaning in a different country.
A forceful style which in the US would convey passion and conviction would in another culture convey deception and trickery.
So a businessman with the best of intentions can fail in an international setting and never know why.
No wonder that some studies show a 60%-70% failure rate of cross-cultural projects by Americans. A lack of attention to the cultural issues is a primary cause of those failures.
So even with the probability of failure high, there are still attempts at global projects without taking into account the need for bridging the cultural barriers. With all the information available today there is really no excuse to go into those situations unprepared. Even if there is no time to take a training course in a particular culture, there are books that focus on a number of countries. A good book that can give an introduction to 60 countries, and I stress the word introduction, is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Morrison, Conaway, and Borden. Also in the area of gestures there is Roger Axtell’s Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. I use both those books as well as many others as sources in my training courses, and the books are excellent.
The point is there are three levels of communication: language, body language, and actions. All three are heavily influenced by the culture a person has grown up in, and in turn they strongly influence business processes.
Most people go through life completely unaware of potential miscommunications that can occur when their words, gestures, and actions are interpreted by a person from another culture. For the business person embarking on an international business venture, awareness of the impact on business practices of culture can mean the difference between success and failure.
Don’t ignore the signs
About 10 years ago there was a new manager assigned to the marketing group I was working in. At that time in my career I had already established a reputation for being very interested in the Japanese, having studied the language and designed a course for doing business with Japan.
The manager, whom we’ll call “Jeff,” impressed me at first with his thoroughness of preparation. Whenever he didn’t know someone with whom he was going to meet, Jeff would come over and ask one of us about the person. Jeff would ask questions about the person’s style and the way he handled problems in the workplace.
When a video conference was scheduled with a group from Japan, I had expected Jeff to come ask me about the Japanese we would be meeting with. When the meeting date was approaching and no Jeff appeared, I went to his office to volunteer the information he always seemed so careful about acquiring.
“Don’t worry,” he told me. “This is just a preliminary meeting. Nothing important will be decided.”
He was right on that point, although I don’t think looking back on it that he knew why.
“Besides,” he said, “You’ll be there to signal me if I start getting into trouble.”
Knowing Jeff’s ability to communicate and knowing that he was acutely aware of how even in this country differences in a person’s style required different strategies of communication, I assumed Jeff would be sensitive enough to stay out of trouble in the video conference.
But when the meeting came, he started getting himself into trouble immediately. And he never looked over to me for advice as I tried to signal him. In the end, after a number of miscommunications, he was annoyed with an issue that the Japanese side did not even understand.
The video conference, which cost a lot of money, turned out to be a complete waste of time.
Joseph Geck is president of Accelerated Solutions Consulting in Waukesha. He can be reached at 650-1818 or via e-mail at

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