How learning a new language and culture can be valuable in the business world Featured

8:00pm EDT July 31, 2012
How learning a new language and culture can be valuable in the business world

When the iconic “Got milk?” campaign was translated into Spanish, Hispanics wanted to know why asking someone if they were lactating was so funny. Language and cultural misunderstandings in the business world could cost you a contract or block your entry into a new market unless you take the time and have the foresight to do your homework.

While a language barrier isn’t easy to fix overnight, even learning a culture or just knowing there are cultural differences can make an impact.

“A language is a lot of investment, not just for the employer but for the employee as well. However, people are more forgiving about a language barrier than if you’re perceived as rude,” says Victoria Berry, program manager of Business and Performance Development with Corporate College.

Smart Business spoke with Berry about some of the pitfalls business owners face when working with those from another culture.

What is the value of learning a new language or culture in the business world?

It has tremendous value in a global marketplace. Even as a U.S.-based company, you have employees who are dealing with overseas customers, clients and partners. There also are more than 3,000 foreign-owned companies in Ohio, 275 of which are in Northeast Ohio and employ more than 30,000 workers. Even within your own company, you can have people from different cultures working together on high-functioning and cross-functional teams. The U.S. is an anomaly when compared to the rest of the world in that having more than one language under your belt isn’t part of our culture.

On top of the more visible language barrier, cultural misunderstandings can be just as dangerous. For example, in the U.S., a high-quality brochure typically has high-gloss or thick-stock paper, but in China, that comes across as cheap; you should use a thinner paper with a no-gloss shine to it.

People tend to overlook the fact that other cultures have different expectations, especially regarding business etiquette or meetings. For instance, in China, it’s considered discourteous to take someone’s business card and not look at it, or at least pretend to read the title. As another example, you wouldn’t want to call a Mexican company between noon and 3 p.m. when businesses are closed, or discuss business during lunchtime. Following these kinds of protocols will impress people from another culture and show you at least did some background work.

What is crucial to know when dealing with foreign businesses?

It’s crucial to know the greeting and how to approach a business situation. In the U.S., we tend to be demanding and quick, assuming people are in a hurry, and therefore, we sidestep some of the formalities. In most other cultures, the friendly bonds that business executives build with others weigh heavily on whether or not they decide to do business you. This is true especially in China and many Latin American countries, where personality and whether or not they feel like they can trust you are essential factors.

Another consideration to remember is that in American culture, we’ll work through breakfast, lunch and dinner. We often have the expectation that you’re going to work until this project gets done. In many other cultures, they work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then the lights go off. Family and personal time is coveted. In the U.S., we might say, ‘Family comes first,’ but how many of us miss a Little League game to be at work?

How do you know when learning new languages and cultures is worth the resources?

Any time you can foresee that you may be doing business either out of the country or in the country where you know there’s a large population of a specific culture, you probably want to get the employees you know will be in contact with these individuals acclimated.

Which employees might benefit the most from learning a new language or culture?

Depending on the situation and business, it could be your customer service, sales personnel, human resources and/or marketing professionals. Managers and executives who are making the decisions might not need to speak the language but definitely will need to know the culture.

What should employers be looking for to help employees understand other languages, cultures, customs and etiquette?

Some have a tendency to go for the free programs that you find online, but those programs are not always worth your time. A free program, for example, might leave you without the natural fluency and dialect you need. You get what you pay for; this program might cost $200 less but you’re just getting a PDF that someone copied.

Instead, focus on programs with quality instructors and a good reputation in the education/training field. The instructors should be fluent in the language and have teaching experience. Research the organization to find a program that has a history of providing good service.

Remember, even a little knowledge will keep you from inadvertently offending someone from another culture, which brings stress and tension among team members — whether it’s a long-term team or if you’re just trying to get the contract signed so you can do business together.

Victoria Berry is program manager of Business and Performance Development with Corporate College. Reach her at (216) 987-2906 or victoria.berry@tri-c.edu.

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