Understanding Cultures for a Successful Cross-Cultural Approach to Business English

people from different cultures learning business english

English is the de facto business language. Naturally, Business English skills are crucial in career development. They’re also equally advantageous in establishing powerful international partnerships, maintaining solid corporate identities, and laudable customer support. However, the path to success is chockfull of ever-changing factors. Nowadays, proficiency in business communication includes so much more than language fluency. Perhaps the most essential skill that augments an aptitude in Business English is cultural intelligence.

At the very basic, company culture is an aspect of trade that every employee must learn to orbit. Beyond that, each country has its own way of doing business. Working with foreign business counterparts obliges a certain level of cultural understanding. In this article, we will touch on the state of Business English Learning and how cultural intelligence and language skills amplify the likelihood of thriving in a global market.

The Current Trend in Business English Learning

This era of globalization has seen an incredible rise in companies looking to hire people with solid Business English backgrounds. Together with the high-volume trend of businesses tapping global markets and remote workers, the demand for Business English courses has experienced an unmitigated increase. For this reason, the expectations placed on learning programs worldwide have shifted.

Although business language skills such as reading, speaking, and writing fluency are still part of every curriculum, students are now intensely pursuing specificity in their studies. Subjects such as cultural intelligence, the language of persuasion, business etiquette, business presentations, stress management, and many others have gotten requests for in-depth branches of learning. This development makes sense, but it has brought about certain issues in the teaching part of the divide.

Concerns in Business Language Teaching

Considering the immense scope of Business English, the latest requirements put on English teachers and educators have caused a new form of occupational stress. In the ESL context, Business English courses are already specialized to a degree. But English language learners (ELLs) have come to expect more advanced content from their studies. Not only do they want to gain general knowledge about English in business applications (e.g. writing business letters) but they also seek real-world business knowledge, specifically how to develop flexibility and efficiency in using English to deal with actual business problems and situations.

This requires teachers to have a background in business, which now entails expertise in more than one field of study (for example, linguistics and business management). In addition to being constantly up-to-date with teaching techniques, teachers are expected to provide practical insight into business life.

However, while the average English Education degree qualifies one to teach business communication, it doesn’t mean they were trained or had experience in applying it in real life. In other words, English Philology doesn’t include actual involvement in a corporate boardroom. Moreover, it’s unconscionable to expect proficiency in both fields from regular English teachers.

The typical English teaching degree doesn’t contain academic background in subjects such as intercultural communications and challenges, or company culture and politics. Take into account that most ELLs who attend Business English classes are already in the labor force. So it stands to reason that they’re more well-versed in the world of business than their teachers.

Another prevalent issue for English teachers working in language centers and academies is the lack of management when it comes to student distribution. The number of students in a class is often excessive. Furthermore, the assessment process for learners in many ESL schools is trifling, and there’s mostly no control over the language levels of students enrolled in one class. As a result, heterogeneous classes are widespread. Teachers have to tackle mixed-ability groups in relation to students’ linguistic capabilities, background knowledge in business, and the industry they work for.


English for Specific Purposes (ESP) has actually been around for decades. Back in the 90s, its emphasis was to direct students’ needs to match the demands of real-world business through computers and professional skills. Modern Business English teaching has evolved since then, incorporating task-based learning in curriculum design.

This approach to language teaching focuses on acquiring practical skills in corporate communications and combining them with language aptitude and accuracy. Teachers working in private-sector teaching services specialize in this method. What’s left for ELLs to do is to study the curriculums offered in an ESL school and choose the programs that are most valuable to them.

In truth, there isn’t any metric or standard description for a Business English syllabus. Therefore, ESL teachers have a lot of freedom in creating their own programs. To provide valuable course content, they must constantly adjust and perfect their courses consistent with students’ needs and current developments in the corporate world. Luckily, there are many resources and materials to aid the curriculum design process. With their own ingenuity, proactivity, and resourcefulness, teachers can create refined and specially tailored courses that can meet and exceed their students’ expectations.

It’s a well-known fact that many language schools (particularly in Asia where ESL is a multi-billion-dollar industry) don’t regulate the number of students per class, if at all. It’s obvious that these businesses are more profit-driven than anything else. Teachers employed in these establishments rarely have the power to initiate or influence change. This leads to overcrowded classes with students who have extremely disparate language levels. In this scenario, the solution depends on the teacher’s skills in classroom management, teaching methodology, and innovation.

If the language school doesn’t prioritize student assessment, the teacher should conduct their own needs analysis and modify their courses accordingly. They should utilize games and task-oriented activities that are adaptable to suit any level or skill. In a mixed-ability class, the teacher must create an atmosphere of collaboration and knowledge-sharing so that their students will learn to help each other in pair work, role-play, and small group discussions.

For ELLs, it’s important to review a school’s list of courses and decide which ones fit their language learning needs. Finding schools that manage class size is also vital. Enrolling in a class with more than 10 students is a waste of time and money. A one-on-one class is a more expensive but exceptionally fruitful alternative. Another option is to organize a small group of learners, preferably comprising coworkers or students who belong to the same industry, and hire a tutor. This method maximizes course customization, student-teacher interaction, and direct feedback.

Intercultural Communication in Business

In many situations, having prominent skills in Business English isn’t a standalone aptitude that guarantees success in high job positions. Each company has a distinct cultural code, which every employee spends time cracking when they begin in a new workplace. Arguably, possessing the savvy to maneuver through a particular company culture has turned into the bare minimum.

As businesses turn progressively diverse and globalized, the labor force discovers the increasing importance of navigating through corporate relationships with foreign nationalities and their respective cultures. This trend isn’t only confined to the interactions between a business and its customers. Working in a multicultural office is becoming more and more commonplace.

So, be it internal or external communication, it’s crucial to develop the ability to decipher, understand, and appreciate the different cultural landscapes we traverse in business today.

The Importance of Cultural Intelligence in Global Business

Cultural intelligence a.k.a cultural quotient (CQ) is an individual’s capability for efficient interaction across cultural boundaries. It includes adaptability, building rapport quickly, and easily coping with the complexities of various cultures.

Human actions, speech patterns, and gestures within a global business setting largely depend on an extensive scope of interpretations, involving paradigms that can lead to misinterpretations and discord. It’s not surprising that a person with a high CQ knows how to simplify these intricacies, building trust and mirroring behaviors effortlessly. The skill to apply cultural sensitivity and understanding towards the goal of effective communication is innate in some, but it can be honed.

When Business English skills are paired with a high CQ, they become a powerhouse asset in any career in business. Fluency in English can break language barriers, but consider the implications of breaking cultural barriers as well.

All forms of communication in a professional setting will be culturally sophisticated – email and face-to-face transactions, global marketing, international meetings, etc. Business English skills can land you a highly coveted job or access to foreign markets. With cultural intelligence to complement that skill set, ascending the career or corporate ladder will be that much easier.

Factors in Cultural Intelligence

A culturally intelligent person can relate to at least two of the following statements:

  • You can prosper in any multicultural environment.
  • You’re able to make sense of situations that aren’t familiar and blend in.
  • You can recognize, accept, and eventually adapt to cultural differences between people.
  • You have a genuine absence or only the slightest of tendencies of correcting other cultures to conform to your own.
  • You’re capable of finding a way to adjust to variables in the habits, gestures, assumptions, and cultural sentiments of others.
  • You know how to tweak your predispositions, reactions, discomfort, and lack of knowledge to accommodate crossing boundaries.

According to Linn Van Dyne and Ang Soon, two of the earliest and major authorities on the subject, CQ has 4 factors. They’ve mentioned that although these components don’t necessarily develop in a precise order, it’s best to think about them as steps toward enriching cultural intelligence:

Step 1. Motivational CQ (Drive) – this gives you the energy, interest, and confidence to practice cultural understanding and to function well under culturally diverse conditions. People who have high motivational CQ recognize and expect the challenges that go within the territory of multicultural learning and interaction.

Step 2. Cognitive CQ (Knowledge) – an understanding of basic cultural cues is developed here. You begin to comprehend cultural similarities and differences, see the world from the perspective of multiple cultures, and operate within each viewpoint.

Step 3. Metacognitive CQ (Strategy) – from your understanding of a culture, you can organize and figure out occurrences in various contexts. It allows you to make sense of unfamiliar situations and manage conflict.

Step 4. Behavioral CQ (Action) – affords you the skill to practice leadership across cultures. You acquire flexibility and adaptability. An individual with superior behavioral CQ can respond and act appropriately to many cultural situations, verbally or otherwise.

Advantages of Cultural Intelligence

Global companies reap many benefits from culturally intelligent employees. For one, they can get around communication breakdowns with foreign colleagues and create a more cooperative and dynamic work environment. It can also dismantle or prevent the existence of silos. A communication silo happens when certain teams or groups of employees congregate exclusively and disregard others. In a company with international employees, people of the same nationality tend to stick together.

Cultural intelligence can curtail this practice and improve coordination across all departments. Furthermore, it builds stronger relationships between coworkers and customers, fostering a unified company culture, which in turn can intensify collaboration and productivity.

Cultural Barriers and Their Effects on Businesses

People are rife with cultural and personal idiosyncrasies. The failure to differentiate between the two becomes quite evident in a business setting. Some European cultures make astute distinctions between the qualities of a person and the qualities of a business pitch. They can severely and openly denounce ideas without hesitation, but also without any inkling of disparagement towards the person from whom the idea originated.

In many Asian and Latin American cultures, however, there’s no difference, and this conduct is viewed as boorish, tactless, and intimidating. Mix the two together in a workplace without culturally intelligent empathy or the clarification that advanced Business English skills can smoothly convey and the result will be chaos.

In the same thread, an executive assigned to supervise an office overseas may experience culture shock. In some Western cultures, the practice of hounding inefficient employees to accomplish higher productivity is common. Many workplace atmospheres are aggressive and at times even mercenary. In these circumstances, a manager’s administrative style might be forceful or combative.

If the same manager is transferred to an Asian office, they could be rendered ineffective when they employ the same management approach. In many Asian cultures, positive reinforcement is the norm, negative reviews are restrained, and confrontations are unheard of. Without an acceptable level of cultural intelligence, business goals will eventually crumble.

Even as business expansions go international, there are still many local workers who find it difficult to comprehend that people from foreign cultures communicate or respond differently. The Polish, whose business meeting arrangements are limited to three general actions – written contact, going over the reasons for the meeting, and setting an appointment – might be flabbergasted when they work alongside or do business with their Chinese counterparts.

In China, there are as many as 7 or 8 actions to accomplish before a meeting can happen. Logically, cultural flexibility falls to the company which has the smaller stakes in the negotiation. Assuming the Chinese company is the one requesting an audience, they might speed up their process to accommodate their Polish associates. The tricky part is when it’s a win-win deal or an even partnership, which would compel both sides to make an equal compromise.

Another effect of cultural barriers is that the company culture of a relocating or expanding business might get swallowed by the customs of its host culture. A hierarchical Korean company, for example, might find itself creating or following an egalitarian corporate philosophy the longer they do business in the Philippines. This phenomenon will most likely take place if following the native management style is the only way to motivate local employees and entice local customers.

Nevertheless, some corporations have innovative products or services that are highly sought-after and have very little local competition. These businesses applaud their corporate culture as the reason for their continued success.

Without substantial competitors to challenge them, these companies are more inclined to preserve their organizational core. They would favor maintaining the norms in all their branches even at the cost of local practices (by completely ignoring them). While some companies reap great success from this strategy, others may suffer criticism for being obstinate and disrespectful to native customs, and gain the resentment of both employees and customers from the host culture.

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Developing Cultural Intelligence

It’s been proposed that many individuals who perfectly exemplify the aspects of their native culture could be the most alienated in another culture. It takes them more time to glean patterns of behavior and anticipate how to act and react in certain situations. Inversely, people who aren’t fully attached to their own culture’s norms can adapt better to an unfamiliar culture’s distinct set of habits. Observing others and making an effort to blend with the crowd have inherently trained them in cultural sensitivity and integration.

Workers in global businesses don’t need to be richly endowed with cultural intelligence. Even so, given the number of multi-functional tasks, remote assignments, possible job transfers, international recruitments, etc. that they might experience throughout their careers, they ought to reach an adequate CQ level. As mentioned before, even though some aspects of cultural intelligence are natural for many, they are attainable.

1. Reflect on your own culture

Understanding your own cultural background is instrumental to how others perceive it. It’s also an effective way to predict spontaneous responses to certain subjects and actions and to transform them into more congenial and inclusive mannerisms. Try to improve your perceptions regarding your own cultural prejudices and impulses.

2. Study other cultures

Learn cultural differences by instilling authentic curiosity about other cultures’ values, customs, and beliefs. When traveling, talk to locals and try local cuisines. Pay attention to their behaviors and habits. Find online or face-to-face opportunities to interact with foreigners. You can join or organize online forums and groups about international jobs and cultural diversity.

3. Exercise flexibility, patience, and open-mindedness

In a global business setting, there’s no universal and correct way of doing things. You need to have a willingness to accept cultural differences and avoid forcing your own customs on others. At the same time, you don’t need to follow aspects of a foreign culture if you don’t want to. Instead, be an ambassador of sorts. It takes time to understand a different culture. Be gracious and patient in explaining your own cultural norms, and celebrate sharing and learning multiple perspectives.

4. Learn the language

If you’re sincerely interested in learning another language, go for it. It creates an instant connection to speak to someone in their native language, even though you only know greetings.

5. Practice effective communication

Be prepared for potential verbal and non-verbal barriers so you can take appropriate action or behave properly when you explain or respond to any situation. Ask if you don’t understand anything. Build relationships by getting to know the culture of the people you’re working with. Always take on a curious approach. Suspend judgment and analyze before reacting. Be forgiving of others when they make a cultural blunder and they’ll return the favor.

6. Adjust your mindset

Stereotypes are typical. Since human beings are naturally complex, our minds categorize new things to make sense of them. Part of this process is formed from our preconceived ideas, background information, and experience. Although stereotypes may possess some truths, it’s important to be reminded that these are oversimplifications that shouldn’t be trusted.

In order to circumvent second-guessing, wrong impressions, and overthinking, it’s prudent to erase fixed ideas about how people from other cultures behave. Another point to remember is that independent of culture, people have individual characteristics. So one person’s nature isn’t necessarily representative of an entire culture.

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International Culture Planning for Executives

Over the past decades, there have been several terms coined to represent the modern reality of the global economy: trans-border trade, cross-cultural business, and internationalization. As businesses internationalize to take advantage of commercial opportunities abroad, they run the risk of communication mishaps among their transnational employees and compromise the future of their enterprise. How can they sidestep the pandemonium of miscommunication?

Since there are multiple ways that cultures differ, mirror, and relate to one another, symptoms and solutions will vary in each situation. However, establishing ground rules and a well-defined workplace philosophy will make companies more adaptable. To do this without conceding their key strengths and values, a remarkable aptitude in Business English communication will bridge the gap with minimal effort and pain.

1. Study the magnitude of differences

First, identify the pressure points and understand the dimensions where cultures diverge. Is feedback direct or restrained? Are timelines flexible or obeyed to a fault? How important are honorifics? Is the boss the end-all and be-all of decision-making or are employee inputs important? Does negative reinforcement work better? Are open disagreements deemed helpful or impudent? And so on. Recognizing these differences will allow you to understand and predict areas of conflict among your staff. Only then can you make plans for effective solutions.

Depending on the number of nationalities in a company’s workforce, the spectrum of differences might be quite variegated. In this case, it’s important to analyze and isolate a middle ground. Which form or way of general communication would work for everybody? Do department heads prefer all messages to go through them or is it all right to email their staff directly? Which format, titles, openings, and closings are acceptable for business letters? 

For instance, some cultures follow a respectful yet simplified means of communication while some appreciate panache. The middle ground solution would be instituting standard formats for all types of internal business letters that are neither direct nor verbose. Since everyone would be using the same structure and wording, employees would focus more on the actual content of the letters they receive. The social implications that go with how they’re written would no longer be a concern.

To further illustrate what social implications entail, remember that language is tied to the history, sentiment, and customs of a group of people. Knowing a foreign word doesn’t mean you completely grasp the feelings and associations that go with it. Look up a swear word in a foreign language and speak it out loud multiple times. It won’t be hard to do so. Because even though you know it’s a bad word, it means nothing to you. Now use the word’s equivalent in your native language. You probably won’t be able to say it with the same volume and absence of feeling.

For native English speakers, the question “Do you understand?” is a basic expression to clarify comprehension. But the translations in some languages have different connotations. A Korean might feel offended by it because “Do you understand?” is a reflection of their own knowledge or ability. To them, being asked the question several times during a conversation means their intelligence is being challenged or insulted. The sentence “Is it clear?”, on the other hand, implicates the speaker’s ability to explain something and takes responsibility away from the listener.

2. Foster an environment of collaboration

You can come up with a variety of rules, but one corporate function you must absolutely implement is giving everyone a voice. This is especially relevant when you have employees working remotely.

Let’s compare the habits and behaviors of two different cultures:

Vietnamese (Non-native English speakers)Americans (Native English speakers)
Rigid about making mistakes. Decisions are made as a group. Prefer to prepare for meetings at least a day beforehand. Only speak when invited.Mistakes are welcome but openly appraised. The boss makes the decision. Laid-back and prefer to discuss agendas on the spot. Can interrupt and jump in at any point during discussions.

At first glance, it’s easily conceivable how conflict can arise between the two groups.

Let’s say both teams are working for the same architecture firm and the Americans invited their Vietnamese colleagues to a video conference.

The Vietnamese group would have expected to receive the agenda no less than 24 hours in advance. The Americans, however, would probably send the agenda only an hour or two before the meeting. As a consequence, the Vietnamese team would be unable to prepare.

Since it’s a general American custom to welcome interruptions during business meetings, the U.S. participants would expect their Vietnamese associates to jump into the discussion anytime and won’t think that explicit solicitation of feedback is necessary. But because it’s typical for the Vietnamese not to voice out their opinions in corporate settings unless they’re asked, they would probably remain mostly quiet throughout the conference.

After the meeting, it’s most likely for the Vietnamese team to conclude that their American associates didn’t care about what they had to say. The U.S. team, on the other hand, would probably decide that their Vietnamese counterparts weren’t interested in the meeting and had nothing to contribute.

The U.S. team should have been aware of the communication limits of their Vietnamese colleagues. When working with non-native English speakers, they must be given sufficient space to participate in conferences. Because English isn’t their mother tongue, they might want to have time for preparations. The agenda should be sent well in advance so they can deliberate with their teams and have room for verifications. They should also have a designated time to give feedback or comments during the meeting.

As a rule, everyone should speak standard English. Some countries where English is a second official language have a creole or pidgin version of the language. In the case of native English speakers, they might be using jargon, slang, or colloquialisms that aren’t instinctively comprehensible to their non-native counterparts.

All employees should be expected to enunciate and speak slowly. There should be a person in charge of summarizing the meeting in case someone needs a recap when discussions speed up or become garbled. After each segment of the agenda, international members should be invited to speak or asked if the discussion is clear to them up to that point.

These practices will establish an atmosphere of collaboration in the workplace. They’ll prevent communication silos because cultural groups won’t feel isolated from the rest. Moreover, the staff will have better interactions and cultivate a sense of satisfaction in working together.

3. Instigate diversity

Let’s study how a company leader’s poor recruitment planning and supervision may tank an enterprise. Let’s say John Doe is an executive running one office in Tokyo and one office in Sydney. 90% of the Tokyo workers are Japanese, and 90% of the workers in Sydney are Australian. Under these conditions, the appearance of cultural rifts and communication silos is inevitable.

If most of the Tokyo employees are in their 50s and most of those in Sydney are in their 30s, the cultural gaps will appear sooner and they’d be wider. Japanese culture is one in East Asia where age is so important that it’s rooted in their language. The way they talk to someone older involves a unique syntax. To them, age is a basis of hierarchy and respect. You can’t talk casually to someone older, even if it’s just a year’s difference. In most Western cultures, however, respect is earned. Language composition, vocabulary, or sentence structure doesn’t change according to age. “Hi, Grandma.” is a normal greeting in English, but its direct translation in Japanese would elicit a gasp of horror when uttered in Japan.

Back to John Doe’s predicament. Let’s say the Japanese staff is composed predominantly of men, and most of the Sydney employees are women. The cultural schism will appear in no time, and John Doe’s company will collapse soon after.

To begin with, a successful international company would have a more heterogeneous staff. John Doe’s grave mistake is treating culture as an afterthought. A thriving company would have the following characteristics:

  • Diversity is evident in each of its international offices.
  • Task and functions are distributed through all locations.
  • Employee exchange programs are set in place.
  • Staff members are periodically trained in intercultural communication.
  • Any cultural misunderstanding is explained and resolved before it could damage collaboration.
  • Expectations are set so flawlessly that, for instance, a Korean supervisor wouldn’t suffer negative emotions when a German subordinate doesn’t bow when they meet, or an American manager would know to consult with their Indonesian counterpart before emailing any of the staff members in the Indonesian team.

These traits eliminate divisiveness and foster an appreciation for different cultural perspectives. The earlier a company understands the realities of global commerce, the less likely it would fall into cultural sinkholes.

4. Establish a habit of documentation

Some aspects of every organization are dependent on innovation and communal fine-tuning. These units can remain more flexible and less detailed. However, some areas of operations can benefit from explicit description or instruction, especially in businesses with an international staff. Leaving things open for interpretation can harm financial, IT, production, and directory procedures.

Put processes in place that encourage a habit of recapping and documenting important corporate engagements. You can begin formalizing systems, communications, and responsibilities by putting them in writing. This will bring positive changes as anyone with questions and difficulties has written resources to consult or go back to at any point.

Create an employee handbook if you haven’t already. If you have one, look for sections with ambiguous terminology and update them. It’s better to be thorough than to promote misperception and conjecture. Steer away from using the same language you would find in employment contracts. Business English doesn’t have to be complex to be effective. For everyone’s benefit, try to keep the wording succinct while covering all the bases. 

For instance, the statement “Team members in all departments are obliged to adhere to the updated layouts for all internal correspondence.” can be simplified to “All in-house letters should follow the latest formats.” The latter is just as businesslike but gets the message across without being longwinded.

5. Train everyone on company norms

Predictably, entering a new market through a location abroad will require adapting to some local customs. Branches overseas will operate with their own customary business methods unless they’re trained to acclimate to your organization’s corporate style. If their traditional practices will give you an advantage in their market site, it’s a win-win situation.

Nonetheless, your home office staff should be kept abreast of these conditions so they may know how to communicate with their international counterparts. At the same time, training the overseas team in your organization’s core methodology might be necessary for your branding. Joining the two perspectives can be beneficial to your enterprise in the long run as long as both teams stay on topic.

Some cultures including most of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, eastern and southern Europe, and nearly all of Asia favor relationship-oriented goals. In these countries, business systems consider the group as a contributory part of an individual’s identity. Additionally, relationships are instrumental in accomplishing company objectives. Success depends on cooperation, social skills, and loyalty. Reaching a group consensus is important before making decisions and any attempt to decide on one’s own is regarded as distasteful. Putting the group’s interest first is what makes its members thrive.

On the other hand, the U.S., Australia, the Netherlands, and Germany are some examples of task-oriented societies. In this system, decision-making is mostly a personal responsibility. A successful person is one who has accumulated the most victories in their career. Although discussion or debate is encouraged, the end result depends on the most powerful or the most persuasive person. Working independently is celebrated, while seeking assistance from colleagues and superiors may be viewed as a sign of weakness.

These two systems are on extreme sides of the spectrum, with many other adaptations in between. It could create problems for multicultural organizations if their business philosophies always clash. But there are certain aspects of business operations that can benefit from one system or the other. It’s important to identify these attributes and apply the method that is more applicable.

Local and overseas teams will collaborate at some point, and if they share a common platform internally, they’d be using the same approach as a standard for particular tasks. This takes away the need to deliberate over which one is better, effectively removing any cultural barrier that could work against both teams.

After adopting this “merger mentality”, it’s crucial to revolutionize the way English is used under the new conditions. It will take time to model efficient strategies and probably more to implement them. But having clear expectations and directives regarding the type of language used in internal communications would achieve synchronization.

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Identifying Cultural Differences for Effective Business English

Culture’s impact on business deals is profound. A culture that treats time as money would employ different negotiation methods from a culture that believes trust is more profitable when nurtured over a long period. Without recognizing these cultural differences that affect corporate relationships, English proficiency may not be enough to sustain them.

Identifying these cultural elements provides a framework on how to use your Business English skills at their most operative capacity. You would understand your international colleagues or customers better, anticipate how wires may cross, and plan on how to deal with them if they do happen. These are several features in Business English that can be enhanced if cultural differences are properly identified:

1. Language, spiels, and formats or structures used in emails and phone calls

2. Managing negotiations, customer support, contract renewals, teams, and training.

3. Whether presentations need to be simplified or specified, and how to accomplish that.

The following are the most common differences between contrasting cultures. Identifying which one your business operations fall under will explain the type of Business English you should use under each circumstance.

1. Contracts vs. Relationships

Different cultures have different perspectives on the purpose of a negotiation meeting. In some cultures, the chief goal is the creation of a business relationship between the two parties. Other cultures count a signed contract as the highest priority.

In many countries in Asia, the preliminaries of any negotiation are more important than the deal itself. For them, it’s essential to establish a good foundation first. Because of this, any business communication you will have with such a client shouldn’t push for quick transactions. You would need a specific Business English approach that avoids the use of language containing any sense of urgency.

If you need to secure a partnership with an Asian client or business contact, presenting a low-cost or high-yield contract may not be enough to close the deal. You would need to include persuasive arguments that explain how a long-term business relationship would benefit you both. 

Meanwhile, in several Western cultures, the primary phase of deal-making is the main objective. Signing a contract is usually the first if not the only order of business. Consequently, making an effort to build and maintain a relationship will be a futile endeavor. Unlike the long-term courtship of a relationship-oriented collaboration, the initial link between the two parties should be enough to institute familiarity. These operations would need less formal but more concise language in their business correspondence. They wouldn’t want to spend more time on lengthy procedures unless it’s absolutely necessary.

 2. Risks and Decision-making

Certain cultures take more risks than others, such as Americans, the French, and the British. By comparison, the Japanese, Germans, and the Dutch are risk-averse.

When securing a partnership or a sale with a counterpart or consumer who is disinclined to take risks, expect that they won’t be forthcoming with divulging information, trying a new system, or using a different product. They may require a large amount of data, take a long time to study the numbers, and have a complex decision-making process. In order to increase the success of a deal, the language needed for communication should be devoid of ambiguity. You also need to address the pain points that the other party is uncertain about and communicate with assurance and foresight.

It’s not uncommon for the Chinese to show up with ten people in a negotiation meeting. The French would probably arrive with three. That’s because a notable aspect of Chinese culture is to decide on the basis of a group consensus. In France where the norm is the opposite, it’s simple to spot the leader of the group and expect a speedy and explicit indication of commitment. The Business English language utilized in emails, phone calls, and video or in-person conferences should reflect the timeline afforded to the number of phases before getting the green light. Knowing when to rush or dilly-dally would dictate the structure of Business English usage.

3. General tenets or Absolute Specificity?

In almost all cases, a business agreement will be documented in official papers. The cultural factor that will influence the form of the text is whether or not the parties involved would prefer having them in extreme detail. Generally, many Western cultures have a preference for thorough and drawn-out contracts. They want to have all possible outcomes, situations, and contingencies laid out on paper to prepare for any eventuality regardless of its likelihood. This is an effort to protect both parties from any future situation that could compromise the agreement.

However, other cultures prefer general principles. Countries like China, South Korea, and Mexico believe that the spirit of the deal is the relationship between the participants and not the specific rules of the agreement. If unfavorable situations happen, they handle it by looking to the relationship rather than the contract. A South Korean executive may construe the detailed stipulations of a German contract as signs of a lack of trust in their relationship’s solidity.

Business English used for this phase of business relations must follow a suitable basis. Engage with the other party by using a respectful, evenhanded, and honest tone. Understanding the parameters of what they expect from a written agreement is imperative in the writing process. You could craft the most outstanding text by Business English standards but could fall short if you’re writing for the wrong addressees. Instead, use cross-cultural competence to know what mode of communication would apply perfectly.

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LillyPad.ai and Business English Communication

The first step towards incorporating language skills with cultural competence is to master Business English. Speaking and writing fluency is a significant part of success in today’s global economy. LillyPad.ai understands the importance of finding affordable and quality educational platforms for Business English learners. LillyPad.ai gives you access to a wide range of useful resources. In order to provide superior academic content, we’ve put together a comprehensive collection of interactive learning tools designed specifically for Business English learners.

Additionally, The people behind the software are specialists in software development, ESL training, and curriculum design. Their objective is to provide the best and most valuable integration of time-proven methodologies in English education, expertly-curated learning materials, and advanced computer application features. 


Developing cultural intelligence (CQ) to work in tandem with Business English skills will further instigate success in today’s global corporate landscape. Although Business English training has experienced hiccups in meeting academic expectations, English for Specific Purposes has successfully merged business language instruction with real-world knowledge.

Advanced competence in Business English is amplified by cultural literacy. Studying cultural differences helps business professionals navigate the challenges of working with an international staff and catering to customers worldwide. Professionals acquire the ability to find the best strategies for coping with cultural situations.

This is achieved by picking the right courses for learners’ language needs and studying the relevant factors that influence cross-cultural communication in business. Teachers from formal or informal academic networks can design educational packages that are adaptable to blended learning and mixed ability classes. In conjunction, cultural awareness and sensitivity cultivate an empathic attitude, increase the degree of global communication, and pave the way for better integration of professionals and specialists in international industries

Frequently Asked Questions

Is showing emotion bad for international business?

According to a study, Latin Americans and the Spaniards were the most emotionally expressive cultures, followed by Europeans, then Asians. In negotiations, people often behave differently depending on what culture they come from.

For example, Latin American negotiators tend to express themselves openly, whereas Asian negotiators tend to keep quiet.

However, individual personalities also play a part. Some people are naturally emotional, while others are not. Therefore, deal makers must take into account both cultural norms and personal traits when trying to understand how people negotiate.

When should I use formal and informal communication in Business English?

Culture strongly affects the manner by which someone speaks, writes, and interacts with others. As an example, it’s been noted that Americans have a less formal style than Germans. In business, professionals with formal styles would address their counterparts by their specific titles. And even though they have collaborated a number of times or over a long period, they refrain from including personal questions and anecdotes in their interactions. They won’t invade your personal space and at the same time won’t invite you to move into theirs.

On the other hand, a representative with an informal corporate style would initiate a meeting, negotiation, or discussion on a first-name basis. They have a personal and earnest approach when interacting with business contacts, They would often try to find a connection to jumpstart and develop a friendly relationship. An informal style, then, would suit a delegate from California but not one from Tokyo, where using first names during the first meeting is considered disrespectful.

When establishing corporate relations with international associates, it’s best to always review their customs before the meeting. Some cultures have special meanings with their conventionalisms and it wouldn’t be groundbreaking to try to evade them because you think being sociable or welcoming is better.

Obviously, you don’t have to follow their customs rigorously as you run the risk of executing protocol the wrong way. However, it won’t hurt to learn their formalities and to perform them reasonably. You can ask around, look at online resources, and prepare. Still, there are Americans who won’t respond well to an enthusiastic reception. And there will be Japanese counterparts who won’t think twice about giving a warm smile.

So as a general rule, it’s more innocuous to assume a formal posture and adjust to an informal one than the other way around.

What should I do if my business counterpart is afraid of risks?

First, don’t rush the process. When writing emails or during meetings, don’t express more than an acceptable sense of enthusiasm. Being pushy will only raise the other party’s negative feelings about the risks involved.
First, your counterpart should have full information about you and your company. Indulge them if they want specifics regarding your proposal. Make sure the information is sufficient. Focus on building a relationship and trust between the associates.
Third, pay attention to mechanisms that can moderate or decrease the risks involved in the deal with the other side’s advantage or benefit in mind. When you suggest these methods, they will feel more at ease and receptive to your proposal. Also, think about changing the structure of the deal to have incremental benchmarks instead of accomplishing it all together.

How do you handle argumentative emails from foreign colleagues?

Restraint is the first thing you need to show. You can’t allow your emotions to get out of control. Although it’s normal to be frustrated and defensive, try to stay calm. The worst thing you can do is to write an immediate response. You may do or say something you would later regret.

Next, you have to analyze the situation. After getting some air or having time to think, reread the letter. Dig through any unprofessional comments or language and get to the bottom of the situation. Find out the cause of the misunderstanding or complaint and think of the best way to respond.

Remember that in other cultures, showing emotion in a business setting is commonplace. If this is the case, it’s easier to identify the issue without giving the email’s emotional aspect more attention.
A formal tone is a universal method to express politeness and respect. But in certain situations, it may add insult to injury. So tread with caution. It’s better to use direct but neutral language in whatever manner you will communicate next.

Depending on your office culture, a phone call, a video conference or an in-person meeting will be available to you. Ask a superior to mediate only when it’s necessary. You can start the meeting by saying “I understand your frustration but allow me to explain my side.” Discourage interruptions or arguments during your turn to talk. If they interrupt or begin to argue, stop them. Say that you want to hear their input but they have to let you finish first.

When you’re done with your explanation, it’s your time to listen. After this initial exchange, you can get to counterpoints. Be prepared for a heated argument but try your best not to engage. Instead, continue listening and don’t say anything. They’ll eventually stop. Expressions such as “I hear/understand/see what you’re saying, and I respect your position.” can go a long way to mitigate strong emotions. After that, you can suggest solutions.

If your colleague works remotely, consider if there are fluency issues. Things will get worse if you can’t understand each other over the phone or on a video call. Respond through email instead. Although this interaction is slower, it can give both of you a chance to gather your thoughts and phrase them more clearly. Also, writing usually gives people a chance to vent before pressing send. They may have a chance to calm down and change tact. If you’re both rigid regarding your stance, don’t allow counterpoints to go on and on. Instead, recommend finding a solution or compromise.

When it’s over, assert your desire to keep things professional when sending in-house communications. You can tell them something like “I understand that you’re frustrated but let’s keep it respectful. We can find a solution together if something like this happens again.”

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William Landry

William Landry

William is a professional English and ESL teacher with over 15 years of experience. He has taught students of all ages, from children to business executives, and has worked with ESL learners from all over the globe. With a degree in English Education, William has developed curriculum for learners of all levels and interests. He is passionate about helping people learn English effectively and shares his knowledge with the LillyPad community. When he’s not teaching or writing, William enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children.

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