Cross Cultural Communication – Is The Direct Approach Best?

What is the best approach when different cultures meet to make business decisions? Many people would seek a direct path toward the one right decision. Is this always best?Here is an example of what often happens with this approach:


Not long ago, a Chinese company became an industry leader because of their successful marketing research. A US company bought this Chinese firm and sent an American team to meet in Beijing with the newly acquired Chinese marketing staff.

The Americans began with direct questions – as are common in US meetings. Their intention was to be respectful to their experienced Chinese hosts. Yet the American approach caused offense. “How could these Americans tell us how to do our marketing,” the locals wondered.

For hours, nothing was accomplished. Neither side wanted to see another viewpoint.

Mediators finally broke the whole assembly into smaller discussion circles, mixing the two groups. The negotiators pointed out that the viewpoints of both sides had merit. Only then did the meeting make real progress.


Our world is only becoming more globalized. Much communication is now electronic. It is as easy to work with someone in another country as in a nearby city. More than ever, business leaders need to expect and prepare for hidden cultural differences.

The cost of suspicion or anger is measurable, real and very high. Consider the hours of time wasted in the meeting described above. What could the cost have been if these two cultures had not come to agreement?

Likewise, the payoff from building confidence and understanding is also real, quantifiable and incredibly great. Think of the value this company could gain from the rich and varied experience of the talented people in this meeting. After all, this was why the companies had merged.

Bernard Baruch, an American financier and statesman describes the value of considering cultural differences in this way: “We didn’t all come over on the same ship, but we are all in the same boat.”


English may be the language that reaches the widest possible audience today. Yet cross cultural communication can be a challenge even between different English-speaking countries. For example, Australia, the US and the UK often have vastly different words for the same thing.

Not only are there differences in native English. Consider those who speak English as a second language. As pointed out ,
about 800 million people speak English. Only about half of this number learned English as a first language.

Notice the quote above about coming over on the same ship and being in the same boat. Only those familiar with certain cultural references would understand these words.

What a powerful reason to keep communication simple!


Cultures valuing individualism often use a direct approach where only one decision is right. This thinking is common in countries such as the US and Norway, for example.

Other cultures value a group approach, where many viewpoints can be correct and building relationships is more important. Many people in China and Japan have this background.

Learning and respecting various cultures has an ever increasing value in business today.

Differences in English and the variety of people who speak it illustrate the need to communicate in a simple way.

Sana Reynolds offers cross cultural communication courses and workshops for those wishing to succeed in business conversations.