Business English: overcoming cultural differences

Have you ever noticed that you can easily spot a foreigner in your home country, or vice versa, your fellow countrymen abroad, even without hearing them speak? Since it’s the way they look, dress and behave that makes it possible, not the language, just imagine how crucial these factors are when it comes to doing business with people from other countries/cultures.

Many agree that learning a foreign language implies learning about its culture, but how to do it? Here are a few thoughts on the matter.

Point out cultural differences using language material

Many learners genuinely believe that if they learn the vocab and apply grammar rules, they will be able to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, it’s far more complicated than that. So here we are, teaching them to say ‘I’d like’ instead of ‘I want’ at Elementary level, or ‘I’m afraid I can’t agree with you on that’ rather than ‘You’re wrong’ at higher levels. It’s probably necessary, and natural, to emphasize the importance of cultural differences at such points as well.  Obviously, it’s also the case when you run into such words as ‘grammar school’, ’30 OZ’, or ‘hillbilly’, or when you teach the layout of formal letters or emails.

Share facts and information about foreign cultures

When it comes to visiting other countries or working with foreigners, our students must know a lot about the culture of those countries. It’s worth listening to and learning from, and despite possible issues with TTT, providing a few memorable examples ourselves. Personally, I have had students who have worked in Japanese, Vietnamese, European companies, and I learned a great deal about business culture there through those students.  You may have a lot of fun with your students discussing how culture influences communication. Obviously, in real life the consequences of underestimating intercultural awareness and adaptability may be quite serious. Yet, in the classroom, it may be a great way to facilitate thinking and speaking, e.g. discussing the message of this short video:

Teach tolerance to different dialects and accents of English, customs, and beliefs

To increase students’ intercultural awareness, many course books now include socio-cultural component in Reading, Listening, Writing sections, and into Case Study tasks and Role Plays. It is quite realistic and practical to hear an Arab and an Englishman negotiating a deal, or to read about the problems some Swedish company had while entering the Chinese market.

Roleplay the situations when cultural clashes occur

It should be really useful and interesting to roleplay situations which are potentially dangerous in terms of cultural differences in the safe environment of a classroom. Such roleplays may include scenarios similar to these (adapted from):

  • You invite a colleague to lunch and you learn that she/he only eats halal foods.
  • You call a foreign client and you don’t understand her/his dialect or accent.
  • Your new foreign colleague has a habit of dressing very casually and they often arrive quite late for meetings and appointments. This behaviour is drawing the attention of colleagues and it is quickly becoming a problem.
  • You are transferred to another office in a foreign country and you are worried about certain stereotypes [you have heard about food and traditions] and a negative image of that culture or that country.
  • Teach phrases that may be useful in case of intercultural communication breakdowns
    Since we cannot possibly predict and prevent every possible problem, it might be useful to prepare for the worst in advance. Here are some phrases students can use in the dialogues above:

    1 Skyteach
  • Customize your teaching to learners’ needs
    If your student works, say, for a Turkish company, it is probably a good idea to devote a few lessons to this specific culture, its values and practices. The key areas that might be considered cover relationship building, verbal versus nonverbal communication, attitudes to time, attitudes to information, and attitudes to hierarchies.

What might be commonplace in your culture — be it a firm handshake, making direct eye contact, or kiss on the cheek — could be unusual or even offensive to a foreign colleague or client. Effective communication, whether it is verbal or nonverbal, is essential to the success of any business venture. Therefore, it is crucial to help our students to overcome cultural differences.

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