Building trust and relationships


Understanding Culture – An Introduction to Cultural Models
Sara Knowles, Language & Culture Adviser, UKTI North West

Culture is complex. You only have to consider how varied culture can be between cities and regions across the UK. So understanding culture requires you to make some broad generalisations and look for patterns of behaviour to give you a starting point. Models of cultural types help with understanding different kinds of behaviour, what to expect and how to adapt your communication style to respond. This is particularly important in business when you need to build trust and credibility with potential buyers , customers and other stakeholders.

One of the simplest starting points to define the differences in communication styles across cultures is the idea of low and high context cultures developed by Edward T Hall.

Low context cultures are those like the UK, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Australia and Scandinavia. They are defined as having a direct communication style where decisions are largely based on data.

These cultures also have fixed attitudes to time and punctuality, tend to adhere to fixed schedules, and written contracts feature prominently in business.

High context cultures, on the other hand, place heavy emphasis on relationship building and more nuanced communication defined by behaviours, body language and silence. In these cultures it is important not to cause embarrassment to oneself of others (the concept of ‘face’) and communication is more indirect. Attitudes to time are more flexible and business meetings can be less structured.

Geert Hofstede developed a model of six cultural types that are defined according to a number of factors, which he termed ‘dimensions’. Four of these dimensions are particularly significant for exporters:

Power-Distance: how easy it is to access people with influence. UK has a low power distance structure as it is relatively easy in society and in business to access decision makers and people with relatively more power. In contrast, countries like Saudi Arabia and China have relatively high power distance structures because hierarchies and societal status are much more defined. UK businesses can find it challenging to reach key decision makers to get business done expediently in countries with high power-distance.

Individualism versus collectivism: how defined society is by individual achievement, success and social behaviour. The UK is a very individualistic society relative to others. Achievement is relatively often measured with regard to individual (rather than group or team) success, and society is structured in terms of smaller family units. This is in contrast to collectivist cultures, such as those of Japan, China and South Korea where interdependence, group achievement and group decision-making are prominent features of society and in companies. In business this affects how decisions are made and may also be a consideration for how you market and advertise your products or services. For example, in any imagery used to advertise products e.g. sports or outdoor gear, consider how team or group activities may be more significant than individual or lone activities.

Uncertainty avoidance: this is a measure of attitudes to uncertainty and ambiguity – ultimately how averse people are to risk. The UK scores relatively low on the uncertainty avoidance index, indicating we are more open to taking risks. We tend to see this as a positive attribute e.g. it enables innovation to thrive; but it can be perplexing to cultures that are more risk-averse. Cultures which score low on this scale include Greece, Portugal and Germany. Often business processes can be jarred by needing to adhere to regulations, laws and other administrative requirements which we tend to view negatively.

Long-term orientation versus short term orientation: this dimension is about society’s attitudes to time. Cultures with short-term orientation are more concerned with the past and present, in contrast with those with long-term orientation which are more concerned with the future. The UK scores high in terms of long-term orientation – our attitude in business is often ‘time is money’ i.e. what happens today is urgent and important because it has implications for future success. In contrast, many cultures are more concerned with responding to what happens in the present and will respond according to immediate needs. This explains why when doing business in e.g. Middle Eastern and African cultures, meetings may be interrupted to respond to phone calls or other matters, meetings may be postponed or cancelled at short notice and flexible attitudes to time lead to delays in response.

There are two further dimensions you may wish to consider Masculinity versus Femininity and Indulgence – you can find out more about the others here.

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner built upon Hofstede’s work to produce seven cultural dimensions. You may wish to read further about these and how they apply to international business and organisational development (see link). All of these models provide interesting perspectives into how to prepare to do business with, and manage people from, different cultural backgrounds.

What do these models mean for me when preparing to export?
Understanding culture also requires you to come to terms with your own mindset and viewpoint and what our culture looks like to others. Expectations and ‘norms’ differ on both sides and these contrasts in behavioural and communication styles can often cause frustration in business. Understanding these differences will help you succeed in international business. You can use this awareness to identify why people you do business with internationally behave differently and you can learn to adapt your our own communication style and expectations accordingly.

Consider the models and their dimensions presented above. How do you think these will affect your:

  • Marketing and advertising?
  • Product development and localisation?
  • Day-to-day business communications by email, phone and face-to-face?


What next?
You can explore these ideas and develop your understanding further by discussing them with your Language and Culture Adviser. S/he will be able to explain how the countries you wish to do business with fit with these models and help you work on the implications for your international marketing and communications.


Reading and web links


Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner
Riding the Waves of Culture (2002)
See also–fons-trompenaars

Richard D Lewis, When Cultures Collide

Understanding Culture – An Introduction to Cultural Models
Sara Knowles, Language & Culture Adviser

There will come a point when it is time to meet face-to-face with your international counterparts e.g. you may need to make market visits, arrange meetings, undertake negotiations, attend trade shows or conferences. As with any relationship, it’s important to make a good impression and build trust. In many cultures, meeting face-to-face will be critical to business success, particularly in high context cultures where building relationships over a significant period of time is the key to success. Here are just some of the things you can research with regard to each of the markets or countries you intend to sell to:

Meeting and greeting
Hand-shaking is a typical way of greeting people in business in many Western cultures such as the UK, Europe, Australia and North America. In other cultures different types of greeting may be used. In Japan, for example, the traditional way of greeting is with a respectful bow. In cultures influenced by Islam e.g. in the Middle East, parts of Asia and Africa, it is acceptable for men to shake hands with men, but not for men to shake hands with women. It is really useful to research the conventions relating to the culture of the people you are doing business with. As your business relationship develops you may find that less formal greetings are used such as hugging, kissing, back slapping (all common in parts of Europe, Latin America and Russia); even hand holding and nose rubbing (in some cases between men in the Middle East).

Business card presentation
Different conventions apply to giving and receiving business cards. In the UK it’s not unusual to give and receive business cards in quite a casual way. In other cultures, however, the business card ritual has more symbolism, and the card and how it is treated can be read as your attitude to the relationship-building process. In Japan and China, for example, it is important to give and receive cards with two hands, carefully regard what is written on it and treat it with respect – don’t shove it in your pocket or bag! In the Middle East and other cultures influenced by Islam, business card giving and receiving should be done with the right hand only. Each culture has its own conventions for giving, receiving and even the text and design of the cards – it’s always worth checking as part of your preparation for doing business. It is also worth considering translation of your business cards and checking the colours and logo are culturally appropriate – seek advice on this from your Adviser.

Body language and gestures
Hand gestures, personal space and even how we sit and stand can be interpreted differently between cultures. For example, the hand gesture used in the UK and USA to mean ‘OK’ (thumb and forefinger closed to make a circle) means different things in other cultures:

Japan: Let’s talk about money.
France, Belgium, Tunisia: It’s worthless; nothing.
Southern Europe, Turkey, Brazil and Russia: An insult.

As you can see, just one gesture has many interpretations and could get you into all sorts of trouble!

When it comes to meeting, there are different seating conventions relating to hierarchy in some cultures. For example, in China it is customary for the two most senior people at the meeting to sit opposite each other at the table; in Japan the most senior person will usually be seated furthest from the door. As far as personal space is concerned, you may find that there is more closeness or distance expected than you are usually used to e.g. in parts of the Middle East intense eye contact and closeness is common between men doing business; greater personal distance is expected in the UK and many parts of Europe. Variations can be localised between countries and even regions or towns – the key is to do your research so you can be prepared.

Gift giving
In many cultures it is customary to present gifts as part of the business relationship-building process. It is usually done after (rather than before) a face-to-face meeting. Gifts are a gesture of respect and acknowledgement that there is a will for the relationship to develop further. Gift-giving should not be confused with bribery, which involves a more significant will to sway a decision with a substantial monetary benefit or benefit in kind. Consult the guidelines on UK anti-bribery policy which can be found at

There are different approaches to gift giving and receiving in each country. Here are a few guidelines to give you an idea of the types of things to consider:

In China, Japan and other parts of South East Asia, gift giving is almost ceremonious. Gifts should be presented attractively wrapped and presented and received with two hands. In the countries where the Islamic religion is prominent, gifts should be presented and received with the right hand only.

Suitable gifts could include:

  • Books on the region you are from / the UK – particularly those which are visual
  • Crafts which are made in your region / the UK and distinctive from those available elsewhere e.g. pottery, glassware or metal goods
  • Non-perishable food/drink from the region you are from /the UK
  • Calendars
  • Sports memorabilia e.g. from well-known UK football teams
  • Other corporate gifts e.g. pens, stationery, deskware etc.

Things to bear in mind or avoid:

  • Avoid alcohol gifts in some cultures e.g. particularly where religious practice forbids alcohol. Be aware of alcohol content in some foods e.g. chocolates and other confectionary.
  • Be aware of other restrictions on food, drink and other products in some cultures e.g. the need to comply with Halal standards in Islamic cultures; attitudes to meat products in other religions.
  • Avoid anything sharp e.g. penknives as this can have negative connotations in some cultures.
  • Avoid giving clocks and watches in China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia as this can be interpreted as a bad omen (having limited time; imminent death)
  • Wrapping is significant in some cultures e.g. China and Japan – bear in mind how colours may be interpreted and that the gifts should be opened in private – this is to avoid potential embarrassment or ‘losing face’.
  • Modest gifts that are ‘quirky’ or ‘typically British’ are usually the best choice and much appreciated.

Dress codes
What to wear is a question of being aware of cultural norms and expectations. As a general rule, business attire should roughly follow conventions used in the UK. More modesty may be required in some cultures than others e.g. in the Middle East where women doing business should have arms and the whole body covered from the shoulders to the below the knee – figure-hugging clothes should be avoided. Colours should be subdued or neutral in many contexts. You will need to take into account climate and ensure that you have suitable attire to deal with extremes of heat, cold and temperature fluctuations. There will also be places where dress codes are very relaxed and casual e.g. in some cities/states in the USA and parts of Europe. Everywhere has different conventions and expectations so it’s always best to research carefully before packing your case.

A little language goes a long way and can make a big impact in showing that you are committed to building a successful business relationship. When preparing to visit a country or receive visitors consider learning a few basic phrases in your counterparts’ language e.g. ‘Hello’, ‘Pleased to meet you’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Goodbye’. When it comes to conducting meetings and negotiations you may need to the services of an interpreter and it is always best to organise this ahead of your visit. Ask your Advisor for guidance on this.

What does this mean for me when preparing to export?
Being prepared and equipped with knowledge and awareness is the key to successful face-to-face relationship building. Check the guidance for the markets you are interested in by doing your research. Your Adviser can provide further, country-specific guidance on any of these areas.

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