Cultural awareness and body language: the secrets of a flourishing business

Posted on 04/16/13 in CULTURE, INDUSTRY NEWS, LANGUAGE, No Comments

What comes to mind when you hear the word “communication”? Languages, speaking, writing, phones, internet…? Communication is possible through different ways: there is verbal communication and then nonverbal communication such as body gestures, facial expressions and eye contact. Research has shown that 80% of messages are portrayed through body language rather than the words that come out from your mouth. As non-verbal communication is not universal, you have to be very careful. Indeed, each country has its own “body vocabulary” and if some gestures are misinterpreted, these can be as serious as verbal communication mistakes.

The way we communicate varies with culture. In 1871, the concept of “culture” was defined by Edward Tylor as a “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. This “complex whole” means that we do not perceive the world in the same way.

For instance, smiling does not have the same meaning around the world; for example, after business negotiations it is common to take a picture of the two teams that came to an agreement and American people would smile while Japanese would not due to it being a serious situation. This is one example, and most cultures do not smile during serious situations however in India for instance, people smile when someone dies in the family.

The use of silence is also perceived differently in each culture. Some value it, like Japanese or African people who say “those who know do not speak, those who don’t know speak”, while others consider silence as a lack of participation.

The amount of gestures used and the interpretation of these gestures are significant too across cultures. For instance, Asian people do not use a lot of gestures unlike European people, especially in Southern Europe where people frequently use hand movements to express themselves. Furthermore, Japanese people perceive the fact of crossing legs as offensive and impolite.

As you can see, it is very easy to misunderstand a gesture and one facial expression or gesture that has no meaning in your country can be very significant in another. Nowadays, and especially in business it is more and more important to be aware of these codes. Our countries depend on each other for international trade and business and it is therefore overriding to be culturally aware in order to keep good relations.

Cultural Awareness in International Marketing

Let’s take some concrete examples to understand the possible consequences of a lack of cultural awareness in marketing campaigns:

  • A toothpaste brand Pepsodent tried to market a product in South Asia which would whiten the teeth but it failed… Why? The company failed to do any research into local culture and if they had, they would have realised that local people in South Asia actually chew on betel nuts to blacken their teeth as they think that having black teeth is more aesthetically pleasing.  
  • An American cosmetic brand tried to market an underarm deodorant in Japan by showing an octopus applying the deodorant under its arms. This may have been a great marketing idea to the American company, but again they failed to research into Japanese culture and therefore missed the fact that in Japanese culture, an Octopus is known to have legs and not arms.

As you can seem cultural awareness is important, however, try to stay away from the clichés. We have to keep in mind that nothing can be simplified; each person is different even within one same culture.

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