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International Business: Understanding Cultural Barriers

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International Business:

Understanding Cultural Barriers

Kevin Figueroa

Azusa Pacific University


Cultural awareness determines how businesses behave in cross-culturally reflected international markets. In this paper, language barriers and cultural barriers are presented as characteristics of international business. The first objective of this paper is to display how English is a factor that is dealt with in international affairs. Additionally, this paper includes what has been done throughout time in order to counteract these problems. With this awareness, entrepreneurs will be aware of factors that are taken into account when stepping into a foreign market.

In today’s economy, organizations rely on international affairs to take place, run, and expand their businesses. Even with awareness of how important international relations are for their companies’ success, miscommunication is almost inevitable and someone involved in the transaction is left scratching their head. This is a result of lack of cultural training and understanding. This paper will discuss some implications that English speaking cultures have encountered in the international business world, the phases that have been taken to resolve these problems, and future consideration for international business communication.
                                          English in International Communication
The English Language
           English is arguably one of the most used languages in international business. The English language is at least one of the official languages in over 80 countries (The World Fact Book, 2016). Having a declared official language means the language used within its government – its, parliament, courts, administration, etc. – to run its operations and manage its business. ("McArthur", 1998.) English is spoken worldwide; however, it is still not fully understood by everyone who speaks it. In an article written by Jacob Tunstall, he gives ten reasons on why English is such a challenging language to learn. Some explanations he includes are: our complex spelling system, rich sounds, how accentuating certain words can change the entire context of a statement, and even how a single term can act as an adjective, verb or noun using the same spelling (Tunstall, 2008). It is common to encounter someone in another country who speaks English fluently, making them bilingual. However, their understanding of the English language is probably different than ours. Although I have spoken and studied in English for years, I still occasionally find myself confused at times.
          James Calvert Scott mentioned in his article “the English language is not a monolith but a surprisingly diverse family of related varieties, each of which has idiosyncrasies” (Scott, 2012). This is one of the main reasons why forming a completely universal and world known version of the English language is virtually impossible. Scott goes on in his article to explain some of the issues that businessmen and women experience when they partake in international business, primarily with British English speakers. The article demonstrates and compares phrases and words that are used in American English and British English that can cause confusion when used among the different types of people. For example, the word “allocate” can be misinterpreted in a simple conversation. In American English, “allocate” means to spread costs within multiple cost centers or units (Scott, 2012). On the other hand,  in British English, “allocate” means to attribute every costs to one center or unit (Scott, 2012). Therefore, if the word “allocate” is used in a transaction among American and British entrepreneurs, it needs to be made clear what they are trying to accomplish. This goes to show that even two countries who share the same language can encounter misinterpretations. Nevertheless, other means are suggested to eliminate barriers in international business communications.

                                                   Counteracting Cultural Barriers

            Globalization is a term that is used to explain the interconnectedness of international and domestic markets (Tunstall 2008). This term is usually associated in communications and finance, but it can also be used to portray cultural exchanges (Tunstall, 2008). In regards to business, globalization is known to expose a larger market for consumers to purchase their services and goods and increase economic trade and flow among countries (Govil and Jain, 2013). This also helps the goods and services that are made in developing countries to enter markets and be used by thriving markets.

In today’s society, globalization has been fueled by communication technology. Some of which include translation apps or blogs that explain certain cultures.  This has stimulated more international interactions and business transactions (Liu, 2012). 
          Cultural exchange is also a considered factor in globalization. An increase of communication and business across international borders results in an increase of multicultural organizations and diversity in the work place (McGuigan, 2002). This makes it essential for employees and travelers in business to be aware and trained of the different cultures they will interact with.

Higher Education
           In order for students to have an understanding of factors that play into international affairs, courses have been added to degrees’ curriculums. Studying abroad is also available to students in order to experience their field of study in other countries. Although students are still studying, they get a grasp of what it is like to live in another country and interact with people of different cultures, traditions, languages, etc. Although this has been our schools for a long time, more countries are starting to implement this and  “It is [now] evident that the researchers in higher education worldwide are aware of the influences… and culture brought about by globalization in a broad sense and by the status of English as a global language in a narrow sense” (Liu, 2012).

Employee Training and Cross Cultural Management
Businesses that send their employees to other countries have to prepare them. This means it is necessary for workers to be trained on the countries’ cultures. Often, workers who are not trained on the protocol of other cultures encounter uncomfortable situations and could offend others without knowing. Furthermore, if a company has a multicultural staff, they must be aware of how to interact with them. Cross-cultural management is defined as “the study of the behavior of people in organizations located in cultures and nations around the world” ( McGuigan, 2002). Managers in any international firm must have knowledge of its diverse stakeholders in order to achieve organizational effectiveness. Doing so creates an appealing workplace for employees and a broad market for consumers.



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