Six ways culture can impact your export strategy

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James Hunt

If you are embarking on your own exporting venture, the success of your international communication, negotiation, marketing and management depends to a significant extent on your understanding of your target country’s culture and language. Doing your research is not just good business; it should be an essential part of your export strategy, so here are six areas where cultural differences can affect how you do business abroad.

Negotiating with customers and suppliers

Of course, understanding the language of your chosen country is a tremendous help during negotiations. For example, the word ‘compromise’ means almost the opposite in English and Spanish, referring to an attempt to find middle ground in the former language and an obligation or commitment in the latter.

But just as important is the ability to put language within the correct cultural context. In countries such as India, it is considered rude to say the word ‘no’. So if potential business partners are making vaguely positive noises to your Western ears, it’s not necessarily a guarantee that things will turn out to your expectations.

Managing people

Having a clear understanding of your target country’s belief system is essential to how you manage people in new cultures. Is the emphasis on doing what’s best for the individual or for the good of a collective? How comfortable are employees or businesses with ambiguity, risk-taking or rule breaking? In the US, there can be a laissez-faire approach to some regulations, while in Germany or Belgium the rules are quite simply the rules.

Managing time

Your export strategy can come unstuck in some unlikely ways, and even concept of time itself is up for interpretation in some countries. If you tell a German customer that your shipment will be with them at 9am, then expect a call at 9.03am querying why it hasn’t arrived. On the other hand, punctuality is not as big a priority in Italy, and events in Indonesia need to be advertised as starting two hours ahead of time if you want anyone to turn up at all. In some Arab countries, a deadline can be considered highly restrictive and even counterproductive.


Cultural superstitions can have a heavy impact on marketing considerations. If you’re exporting to the Middle East, the colour green on your product is considered to be lucky in Muslim countries. On the other hand, Coca-Cola’s promotion that put people’s names on their bottles is unlikely to have gained much traction in Japan, where writing someone’s name in red is considered to be extremely unlucky.

Cultural norms

In East Asian countries, where rules and traditions are still very highly regarded as part of daily life, it’s important to be aware of what is required. For example, while giving a gift is generally considered unnecessary in Europe, it is common in Confucian countries when starting business with a partner. However, in China the recipient will decline the gift three times and you must insist that they take it (and vice versa). In Japan and Korea it is expected that business be conducted by the most senior members of each delegation, with junior partners sitting opposite people of similar status to them.

Body language

You should also be conscious of non-verbal communication when building relationships in a new country. In China, it is not considered rude to bump into you when walking, while in many South American countries, business colleagues will think nothing of sitting or standing very close, constantly touching each other’s arm or shoulder.

Japanese business, on the other hand, is usually conducted at a comfortable distance of three or four feet, with touching a relatively rare occurrence (with the exception of shaking hands with Westerners, as long as it’s initiated by the Japanese person first).

How can you prepare?

In 1967, Dutch psychologist and sociologist Geert Hofstede created a way to measure the differences between cultural values held in countries across the world. His model measures six different aspects of culture which, when simplified, can be boiled down to six questions:

  • What are the expectations of how power is distributed in a company?
  • Do businesses demonstrate a preference for loyalty to groups over individual requirements?
  • Is there a tolerance for the unknown or a preference for rules?
  • Does the country’s culture reward assertiveness or value cooperation?
  • Does the culture focus on adapting to new circumstances or honouring tradition?
  • How strictly controlled are societal norms around having fun?

The model is used to this day by businesses engaged in any kind of international cooperation. For example, when marketing mobile phones in China, businesses may highlight their communal benefit, while in the US the focus might be on the status they afford the individual.

To get a better understanding of how to best approach your target country, there is no substitute for visiting yourself. Look into embarking on a trade mission with your local chamber of commerce. Not only will you be introduced to key business contacts, you’ll also attend briefings from government officials and business support organisations to help you ensure proper integration within your chosen territory.

If you would like to learn more about how our translation services can help you prepare for exporting, get in touch with one of our project managers today.