Cultural Awareness Can Increase Firms' Success

After we were engaged, my soon-to-be husband went looking for a ring in New York’s Diamond District. He introduced himself to the woman referred by a mutual friend, and being a gracious Southern gentleman, went to shake her hand. She recoiled, however, and my husband couldn’t understand why.

Recently a friend signed a contract with a new client. Before she could begin work, the client asked for a price reduction. Irritated at being nickel and dimed from the get go, my friend backed out. The client couldn’t understand why.

What happened here were cultural misunderstandings that tripped up business transactions. My husband didn’t realize the woman he was attempting to shake hands with was forbidden to do so by her religion. My friend’s short-lived client came from a country where bargaining after a contract is signed is expected.

Everyone views the world through his or her own cultural lens, Anglo Americans included. Regardless of how well they speak English, immigrants are likely to retain a good bit of the lens from their original culture for at least a generation or two as acculturation proceeds.

In today’s increasingly diverse market, understanding cultural differences, and learning how to build rapport with people who are different than you, is as important as knowing whether a client prefers traditional or contemporary. How you hand someone your business card, or whether you make eye contact, can matter.

A good place to start is with the book Cross-Cultural Selling for Dummies by Michael Soon Lee, MBA, president of EthnoConnect, and Ralph R. Roberts. Soon Lee was a speaker at KBIS last month.


The authors explain that, generally, there are two types of cultures: high context and low context. In low-context cultures, such as the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Scandinavia, England and Australia, individuality is highly valued and communication tends to be direct. While relationships matter, they are built quickly.

A large part of the diverse U.S. market, however, comes from high-context cultures including many Spanish-speaking countries, as well as Chinese, Japanese, most other Asians, Indians, many Middle Easterners and Southern Europeans. These cultures tend to be more group oriented, with less direct communication styles. They emphasize building and maintaining relationships as a way of doing business.

These customers will want to spend much more time getting to know you before buying. Group decision-making is common and group consensus is vital to closing a sale. The authors explain, “Rarely do customers from collectivist cultures like Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and India, make the final decision for a major purchase alone. So when they bring a group of people, it’s a buying sign. The larger the purchase price, the more people involved.”

Another important buying signal is when they talk amongst themselves in their own language, which indicates strong emotional involvement with the anticipated purchase.

Messages that appeal to one target audience may not resonate at all with others. Talking about “a one-of-a-kind, unique kitchen specially designed just for you with the latest products by our award-winning designers, the best in the business” may sound great to someone from a culture that applauds standing out and being different. That is, people in low-context cultures.

However, people from high-context cultures, according to the authors, may prefer the traditional: “Our kitchens have proven to be tried and true solutions for families for 40 years. They are created by the certified staff of our family-owned business, which has studied the art of kitchen design for many years.”

This type of message would resonate better because it mentions longevity, which builds trust, and families versus an individual. It brings up the important fact of being family-owned, touches on the history of the business and omits the word “best,” which can be seen as lacking in humility.

Instead of just sales awards on your office wall, which may seem too aggressive and be taken as bragging, the authors recommend including diplomas, certifications and pictures of friends and family to enhance credibility.

High-context indirect communication cultures rely on non-verbal communications, body language and facial expressions to convey meaning. And here’s where it gets interesting, because nonverbal communications vary among high-context cultures. For example, the authors say that many Asians avoid direct eye contact as a sign of respect. However, Hispanics and Middle Easterners value direct eye contact more than most people.

Nodding may not be a sign of agreement; it just means they are listening. Crossed arms may not mean someone disagrees with you. Lulls in the conversation can be treated differently. Silence is appreciated in communication with Asians, Indians and Japanese and should not be interpreted as a sign they are not interested in buying. On the other hand, people from Arabic countries may become loud and emotional when they are interested.

Watch your body language. Pointing with the index finger is considered rude, or worse, in many cultures. So is the thumbs up sign.

Pay attention to how you hand out and accept business cards, especially if your clients are Japanese. Present your card respectfully with two hands, with the type facing the customer. And never write on, or staple, your card, or the customer’s. It’s considered extremely disrespectful.

Signing a contract does not mean the end of negotiations in some cultures, which can be disconcerting for most Anglo-American business people. Soon Lee says he has “seen multicultural home buyers ask for new carpets, painting, copper piping and even a old rusty lawnmower to be thrown into the deal after everyone signed the contract.” He cautions against giving in to this “nibbling.” He advises the best way to stop it is to demand a concession first. You want the extra spice rack? We’ll have to take away the lazy susan. Or, you can buy the spice rack and the cutlery divider together at a special price.

So, what should my husband have done in the Diamond District? The authors say a man should generally avoid initiating any kind of physical contact with a woman from another culture, and instead nod to acknowledge her and wait to see if she extends her hand. As for my friend dealing with the post-contract negotiation, the authors suggest either saving something to give at the end, or demanding a concession to stop the nibbling.