No matter if you’re black or white?

…sang Michael Jackson in 1991. Great song, great video. While he keeps dancing with Thais, Indians, Native Americans and Russians, the message becomes unambiguous:

“…it’s not about races, just places, faces… I’m not going to spend my life being a color.”

However, when it comes to conducting business in a cross-cultural environment, it becomes evident that background DOES MATTER.

Diversity embraces many aspects of human beings, a couple of whom we have already discussed in our blog e.g. gender (all over the place), age (take for example Another Dimension: Age) and culture with regard to integration (see Mr Sarrazin=Double Negative?). I want to raise the subject of cultural differences when conducting business internationally, since this already has or will matter to all of us in the future.

High-Context vs. Low-Context Cultures

First thing that came to my mind was the idea of high-context vs. low-context cultures formed by Edward Hall which highlights the differences between countries when it comes to communication and understanding. High context-cultures base their communication not only on the spoken word, but rather on trust, mutual understanding and nonverbal elements.  Low-context cultures on the other hand are straight to the point and use precise communication as efficient exchange of information and expertise is important. Relationships can begin or end quickly. It is said that China and South Asian countries are high-context cultures while the USA and Germany represent typical low-context cultures.

I think it’s completely stunning how people around the world conduct business so differently. I wanted to get a clearer picture and found a great blog by Deborah Swallow which I recommend to everyone since she highlights key-aspects and strategies one should never miss when doing business with people from different cultural backgrounds. I want to summarize only a couple of interesting facts for you below:

South Asia

Relationships, harmony and the concept of face is very important, therefore be careful with criticism. Apart from that, bribery is viewed as normal exchange, so be prepared and budget for “commissions”.

Middle East

Essentials when dealing with the Middle East are the observation of Islamic politeness and decency, especially segregation of sexes is an important feature. Strictly avoid touching women in public or making direct eye contact, dress conservatively and focus on building a good relationship.


Russians like status and networks and focus on long-term aims. Emotions combined with a hard line in negotiating are basic requirements as compromise is morally incorrect to them. They will out-sit the opposing team since patience not punctuality is considered a virtue. In Russia too, bribery is a common practice.


Europe divides into the Nordic Countries with their strong work ethic, honesty, tolerance and dismissal of corruption. In contrast, the southern countries are regarded as less trustworthy, emotional, slow and unpredictable when doing business. Time is precious and to be enjoyed in the South. The third part is Eastern Europe and the Balkans where the speed of thinking and working is slow and the use of technology not as common as in the western part. Non-committal answers and bribing are common place.

Australia and New Zealand

Australians and New Zealanders have similar business practices, but don’t want to be seen as the same culture. Time and leisure is precious, hence business is conducted quickly, pragmatic and communication straight to the point. Be aware that most Australians don’t speak any other language than English.

North America

“Time is money”. American style is aggressive, competitive and straight to the point. It’s all about quick results and decisions, the bottom line (profitability) and winning. They want everything confirmed in writing and nothing is binding before both parties have signed.


The great cultural mix combined with the different colonial backgrounds (British, Dutch, French, Portuguese) that have influenced many countries makes it almost impossible to generalize. Overriding criteria in most parts are: don’t trust anyone, build a well-founded relationship and don’t forget to tip and “oil the wheels” (bribing).

Because of these significant differences between cultures the first step towards successful business in these countries is knowing the practices and conventions of the other party, talking in the same level of context or in other words: knowing not only WHAT to say and do, but HOW to say and do it.

7 Responses to “No matter if you’re black or white?”
  1. thob84 says:

    Thank you for the very comprehensible overview! I am amazed by the summarizations of each region. This made me think back to our lecture’s in Cambrige by Mr. Stuart Wall about the author Hofstede and and how to manage Cultural Diversity.

    Particularly, I thought about the characteristics such as family and relathionship in the chinese culture, so called “Guanxi”. I know from practical experience that German Multinational Corporations carefully watch out for their asian manager (in their foreign subsidiaries) conduct business in the name of the German Head Company with family members. I experienced policy making by the German Human Resoruces Department in order to cope with this issue.

  2. Izzy says:

    Thank you thob84. Yes, that’s right. I also wanted to include Hofstede in my post initially, especially his 5 dimensions of measuring a countries’ culture (which are Power/Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty/Avoidance Index and Long Term Orientation). To me this is a very fascinating issue especially since we have probably experienced some of these characteristics ourselves while working in a different culture.

    I can just speak for myself and how I discovered your above mentioned example of Guanxi during my internship in Hong Kong. As an event organizer we worked closely with various hotels in the area. Their managers which were mainly local people frequently came in to just say “hello” as you would do with friends or family members, or they would stop by to hand in their new business card or a recent promotion brochure in person. This was very important for them as well as for the company to foster a strong and personal relationship and build mutual trust in order to conduct good business.

  3. Mary says:

    “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.” Hahaha, obviously, he didn’t!! 😀

    No, all joking apart, thanks for this great post and summing up what we’ve heard a couple of times, but strangely enough never got such a nice summary from our lecturers! Maybe we can cite you in our term papers 🙂

    Very interesting topic – What else have you experienced in Hong Kong? Was it easy for you to adapt to that kind of working culture? And did you have any coaching before or at the beginning of your internship as they knew you would be a foreigner?

  4. diiasg says:

    hahaha…very good post. I mean the meat and potatoes of the post are very well done, that goes without saying.

    the way you parralled the different cultures was very good.

    I however have to say my favorite part was the intentional/unintentional comedy aspect of the late great michael jackson.

    Sorry…but it probably wont be the last time someone loses their shine to mj.

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