Avoiding Misunderstanding in Cross-Cultural Communication

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International business has been developing fast in the globalization. We can see Chinese businessmen in most of places in the world, from Africa to America, and many 2 foreign companies are investing in China, vise versa. I, a Vietnamese woman, am working for Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC) in oil and gas field in Vietnam where lots of foreign oil and gas corporations are operating such as KNOC, Halliburton, Schlumberger, BP, and Premier.

The world has become flatter and flatter, more and more people from different countries and different cultures work together, thus how to avoid cross-cultural communication to ensure people understand each other well has become a hot topic. What are the key elements that define a culture?

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Ramsey, (2004) discovered “the culture is the unwritten code of conduct made up of the mores, core values, cherished beliefs, priorities, traditions and informal rules and roles of the organization”, and it “defines what‘s important, what‘s expected, what’s accepted, what’s preferred, what’s tolerated, what‘s rewarded, what’s punished and what’s taboo within the group” (Ramsey, p3, 2004) in which, according to Daniels et al. (2009), “groups based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, work organization, profession, age, political party membership, and income level” (Daniels et al. , p94, 2009).

How does a company overcome ethnocentricity? In order to overcome superior, aggressive, even hostile attitudes and actions toward other cultures(ethnocentrism), a company operating in globalization world should not “draw attention to yourself (the company) and , above all, learn and respect the culture” (Daniels et al. , p130, 2009).

The management need respect the local specific characteristics, and AVOIDING CROSS-CULTURAL MISCOMMUNICATION determine suitable principles that should be applied in its overseas branches otherwise force them to follow all current rules and principles which are being used in the home country.

How do values, customs and beliefs, attitudes toward work, leisure, time, change, family, social mobility and religion shape a culture? As partly mentioned above, the key factors of the culture are the people’s attitudes toward family and work, historical and economical values, traditional and modern customs, cherished beliefs as well as taboo, etc. These factors have shaped and influenced on culture, and made culture to evolve. Career motivation may decide attitude toward work and working productivity.

As we can see, Japanese people with high motivation and devotion to work have been created more and more technologic and economic advances in comparison with Vietnamese ones. The time of off-work of the Japanese is less than in other developed countries as the U. S. where people spend more time to entertaining activities (Daniels et al. , p109, 2009).

However, the Americans “budget their time as they budget their money”, and “would often rush into a business and their impatience is often exploited, esp. by the Japanese” whose “view time is much more flexible than that of the Americans” (Liangguang, p197, 2010). Regarding religion, “among people with strong religious convictions, the role of religion in shaping behavior is even stronger” (Daniels et al. , p104, 2009).

Religion has become another hot topic nowadays since war against Muslim terrors occurred in 2001. In China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, family is very important. They respect the family hierarchy and family relatives. Besides career, people in these countries often spend more time to take care their old parents and small children. Besides in China, Daniels et al. (2009) also discovered that, in southern Italy, “the family ties are so strong, there may also be AVOIDING CROSS-CULTURAL MISCOMMUNICATION a tendency to cooperate more closely within the family unit than in other relationships (Daniels et al. , p108, 2009).

What are “effective” strategies for a global company to adapt to a local culture? At first, a global company need know exactly the mores, core values, cherished beliefs or taboo, priorities, traditions, customs, and informal rules of the local country that must be respected. Then, it need determine the main cultural differences of the local culture in comparison with its home one, which its staffs must be well aware of and not confused.

It would be better if the company has a local consultant or adviser who will help the company to train its staffs about the local culture, and consult the company’s business strategy in the local country. Furthermore, the company should have key personnel who have suitable qualifications, fully understand the local situation, politics, customs, and society, and be willing to follow the motto as “don’t draw attention to yourself and, above all, learn and respect the (local) culture” (Daniels et al. , p130, 2009). These people will be able to resolve the local issues to ensure the operations of their company effectively.

What elements of other cultures (in general) must a company be aware of to operate profitably and successfully? To operate effectively in other countries, the main factor of their cultures a company must be taken into account is ‘people’ with all key related elements as their language, religion, customs, tradition, beliefs, and even their living environment. The reason is that ‘people’ means labor force, consumers, distributors, partners, and competitors whom the company will deal with during its operation. Whether all transactions and communications ill be carried out smoothly, effectively depends on ‘people’ and all factors related to them.

What influence does corporate/ personal verbal and non-verbal communication have on cultural understanding? Daniels et al. (2009) discovered that “when people from different areas speak the same language, culture spread more easily”, and “there is greater cultural homogeneity” among them (Daniels et al. , p104, 2009). In contrast, it is more difficult for people who come from different-language as well as different-culture areas as Eastern Asia and Southern America, for example.

Even though these people can use a common language as English to communicate or they can understand each other through translators, misunderstanding or misinterpretation may happen due to cross-cultural differences. For example, in non-verbal communication, the V for a victory symbol in many countries but “may be an insulting sign in most Europe”, or “the Chinese like to touch a child’ head to show affection, but in Arab countries and Thailand, it is offensive (Liangguang, p199, 2010). What impact does the physical environment have on culture?

The physical environment consists of “the external, tangible surroundings” in which people live and which can affect to people’s behaviors and development (“Physical Environment Definition,” n. d) while ‘people’ is the main factor of culture, thus the physical environment has significant impact on the culture as well. As we know, “the external, tangible surroundings” include various things as natural environment, economic environment, education system, infrastructure, etc. which directly influence on people’s lives and their living standards. How are education and technology linked to culture?

According to Resick et al. , 2006, “rapid technological advances, coupled with changes in the social and political landscape in the latter part of the 20th century have helped AVOIDING CROSS-CULTURAL MISCOMMUNICATION give rise to a truly global economy” (Resick et al. , p345, 2006). Education system with various types of training has been developing over the world, which help people to equip 6 themselves with numerous knowledge and skills in order to join to the globalized labor force.

How does the mass media shape culture, public opinion, marketing and advertising? The ongoing explosion of mass media with public opinion, marketing and advertising campaign, social and political events, films and music shows, etc. have influenced on the cultures. More and more consumers are being leaded and attracted by so attractive advertisements that can be seen in anywhere. For example, more Korean films are on T. V. channels in Vietnam, more Vietnamese people enjoy Korean foods and Korean style, and more Korean restaurants and shops open in Vietnam. What positive and negative impact do politics and a countries legal system have on international companies?

If we review Thailand‘s current situation, we can see very clearly negative impact on its tourism industry caused by the massive political protests, which is a consequence of serious political conflicts among Thai political parties: “43 countries to issue travel advisories to their nationals and at least one credit-rating institute to downgrade its long-term outlook for the kingdom” (“M&C News,”2010). Therefore, a country with stable political and social system as well as fully-constituted legal system is a destination f many international companies.

Why is culture awareness a major factor for international companies to consider in today’s global marketplace?  It is obvious that the international companies operating in Vietnam now will never 7 succeed in their business if they do not know about the Vietnamese political/social/economic situation, do not understand the Vietnamese legal system and customs, and can not communicate with the Vietnamese Government as well as Vietnamese employees.

Therefore, culture awareness has become a major factor that any international company has to take into consideration before jumping in today’s global market. Recommendations to avoid cross-cultural misunderstanding First, all employees, especially the people are assigned to work in overseas branches, need be equipped with cross-cultural knowledge. Thus, they can distinguish the differences among cultures, be aware of potential problems, prevent from conflicts or misunderstanding in communication, especially culture shocks or collisions, and respect the local culture.

Second, they should keep in their mind the high possibility of communication problems caused by cultural differences, and should “be willing to be patient and forgiving, rather than hostile and aggressive, if problems develop” (Liangguang, p199, 2010). Third, in cross-cultural communication, they should be slow and careful enough, active listening, double-checking what they heard before responding, particularly when they feel that conflicts may be heated due to possible misinterpretation (Liangguang, 2010, p199).

Last but not least, the leaders in a global company must “be aware of the cultural differences that influence business practices” (as cited in Resick et al. , p346, 2006), then manage and help their employees to overcome conflicts in cross-cultural communication in order to fulfill their jobs well.


  1. Daniels, J. D. , Radebaugh, L. H. , & Sullivan, D. P. (2009). International Business, Environments and Operations (12th ed), p90-133, p154-169, Saddle River, N. J. Pearson International Edition.
  2. Johnston, T. C. , & Burton, J. B. (2009). International Exercise to Increase Awareness of Cross-cultural Issues by U. S Negotiators. Journal of International Business Research, Jan2009, Vol. 8 Issue 1, p79-90, 12p.
  3. Liangguang H. (2010). Cross-cultural Communication in Business Negotiations. Full Text Available. International Journal of Economics & Finance, May2010, Vol. 2 Issue 2, p196-199.
  4. M&C News, (2010). Bangkok demonstrations affect Thailand’s credit rating, tourism. Retrieved from http://www. monstersandcritics. com Physical Environment Definition. n. d). Retrieved from http://www. education. vic. gov. au
  5. Ramsey, R. D. (2004). Understanding the culture of your workplace. Supervision. Aug2004, Vol. 65 Issue 8, p3-5, 3p

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