Culture is a challenging concept. It involves how a group of people behaves, what those people value and appreciate, and what they believe is right and fair.
Perhaps its best definition is "learned behavior: a way of life for one group of people living in a single, related, and independent community."
In their book, Introduction to Global Business: Understanding the International Environment and Global Business Functions, the authors identify four characteristics of culture which are important for global companies to recognize:
First, culture is not inherited; rather it is learned, usually through one's parents, friends, schools, and other influences.
Second, it is nearly impossible to change an entire country's culture; culture is relatively static and not easily modified – especially by external forces.
Third, it is the global firm's responsibility to ascertain the level of importance of various aspects of culture in the foreign markets it serves, and to recognize these aspects when doing business overseas.
Fourth, companies' operations, chiefly marketing and management, need to adjust to the cultural environment existing in the countries the global company serves. The ability to do so often means success in international markets. Acculturation is the term used the describe the ability of a firm to adjust to a culture different from its own.
Culture embodies so many different components: manners and customs, values and attitudes, power, face saving, names and titles, religion, gift giving, risk taking – and, of course, language.
Values are basic beliefs or philosophies that are pervasive in a society. The United States tends to place a high value upon foreign items, associating them with sophistication – French wines, for example, or Swedish automobiles. In Japan and Korea, by contrast, there tends to be a subtle resistance to things foreign. This is reflected in an aversion to purchasing foreign products and a resistance to accepting employment with foreign firms operating in these countries.
Religion is a powerful cultural aspect which can impact everything from weekends and working hours, through holidays and food consumption.
How important is language? It's a vital component of advertising, which we've covered before in a series of gaffes in which mistakes have cost marketers in international markets. As we noted in "The Challenges of International Marketing Research," one way to eliminate these problems is to employ backward translation. A message is translated from English into the target language, then someone skilled in that foreign language translates it back to English. It can then be compared to the original.
Language is not only important in marketing. It is crucial to managers when evaluating employees and communicating on an intra-company basis with overseas divisions.
Knowing language opens doors, avoids embarrassment, and makes every trip abroad more pleasurable. The authors give the example of "Chuck," sent by the president of the Parker Pen Company to visit the firm's trading company in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This was Chuck's first time outside the United States. Arriving after a 14-hour flight from Chicago, he was asked by the trading company to take a taxi to the office as they were tied up with important customers. At the taxi pick-up area, he was dismayed to find that all of the licensed taxi drivers were on strike. Not knowing how to speak Spanish, he had trouble conveying to the "regular" drivers where he needed to go.
After an hour of work, Chuck was invited to accompany his trading colleagues to lunch. He was given a menu in Spanish. Not wanting his hosts to perceive him as oblivious, he ordered the only item he could understand, "bistec," under the assumption that it might be beef steak. He was right. The waiter proudly presented Chuck with a two-pound steak. Argentina is justifiably proud of its world famous, Pampas beef cattle.
Back at HQ, Chuck and his colleagues worked for another four hours. At six o'clock, he was invited to accompany a group of customers to dinner. Although it was a different restaurant, he had the same problem. The entire menu was in Spanish. There was one item that Chuck could read: "bistec." He ate his second 32 ounces of prized Argentinian steak.
Around eleven o'clock, Chuck returned to his hotel where he was greeted in the lobby by Parker Pen's president. "Chuck, I just arrived. The food on the flight was terrible." Chuck duly ate his third two-pound steak with his boss.