A number of variables can have a potential impact on business communications. Different points of view, different agendas and different communication styles can all impact the nature of communication. Communicating across cultures presents even more challenges. Whether operating in the global marketplace or communicating with culturally diverse employees, customers and suppliers, companies that understand the implications of cross-cultural business communication can build more-effective relationships and use that knowledge to their competitive advantage.


Language is the most obvious challenge to effective cross-cultural communication. Translations can introduce errors and create misunderstandings. Some words, called false cognates, look and sound similar in different languages but have different meanings. A good example is the word “compromise,” which means agreeing to a middle ground in English, but in Spanish means making a commitment. Not knowing the difference can create problems in business negotiations if one party thinks she is agreeing to negotiate while the other thinks he has won his position.

Business Etiquette

There are cultural differences in gift-giving, using business cards and protocol during business meetings. Some objects considered thoughtful gifts in one culture are inappropriate or even taboo in others. Giving a clock to a Chinese person means you are wishing him death, and a gift of knives and scissors represents severing of a relationship. There are rules for exchanging business cards. The Chinese exchange business cards with two hands as a sign of respect and expect cards to be translated. Many hierarchical cultures follow strict protocol at meetings and defer to the highest-ranking members during discussions.


Some cultures have different attitudes toward time. American businesspeople expect meetings to begin on time and frown upon tardiness, while some Latin American countries are more relaxed: Meetings often start late and deadlines shift with ease. Americans interpret this non-verbal communication as lack of respect or unprofessional behavior. Time zones present other communication challenges when conducting business on opposite sides of the world. American businesses begin their work day while other countries may be just waking up or going to bed.

Norms and Values

Different religions and beliefs can create communication challenges in business. Managers can find it difficult to schedule meetings and coordinate training and team activities with some employees who practice their faith by praying several times a day. Conservative cultures may make it difficult for women to communicate as equal members of a team or to participate fully in business meetings.

Diversity Training

Training programs that teach the value of diversity can help employees understand the variables and obstacles to effective communication and help strengthen work teams. This training can also reinforce the customer-service function in a business by raising employee awareness and understanding of cross-cultural communication challenges.