Cultural Differences & International Business

chinese dragon

Cultural Differences & International Business

Australian businesses need to be mindful of more than the marketing mix overseas. Culture is either the great impediment or facilitator. Here are some very basic tips of how to begin considering the cultural aspect.

Culture is not an innate condition; culture is learned and shared.

Yet all too often, differences are considered through the lens of one’s own culture. We make comparisons and begin from a point of unconscious superiority.

This is known as “self-referential criterion.” Those of us in the West are often guilty of viewing China and East Asia through our own limiting prism.

Consider a few differences between Australia as a market and the culture of markets near us.

The State – Intruder or Father

In the West, the State is considered an intruder. We like individual freedom and little intervention. Success is an individualised pursuit for which we can take full credit. When we don’t achieve success, we are fully responsible. We hate laws that restrict our freedoms or insinuate themselves into out daily existence. The less we see of government, the better.

In China, the State is not only ubiquitous, it is considered an intimate member of the family. Not only that, it is the patriarch of the family – an almost spiritual embodiment of civilisation. Where ‘freedom’ is possibly the most important value in the West, in Chinese culture, the most important concept is “Unity.”

Context & the Non-Verbal

A truly sympathetic and open engagement must take into account “high context or “low context” cultural considerations.

The West is low context meaning that our verbal messages are explicit. They convey the meaning and non-verbal cues are far less important. In terms of doing business overseas, such as opening a new export market, thinking that directness and clear speaking is the way to go, may lead to frustration and disappointment.

Thailand, China and Japan are example of “high context” cultures. Much is communicated implicity and non-verbally. In Japan, yes can mean “I understand what you are saying”, rather than “yes, I agree.”

In a high context society, time operates polychronically. Everything must take its own time. Every moment in the past has led to this moment, which will lead to every moment in the future.

In the West, time is monochromatic. Time is spent, used, wasted. “Time is money.” The West operates on schedules with deadlines and short-term objectives.

In many other cultures, relationships are more important and the long-term health of a projects. In China, it is understood that there will be entropy and problems. Problems and delays are to be expected. In the West, interruptions cause headaches and are not so easily accommodated psychically.


Space can also be different. In Asian countries, it is not unusual for a CEO or Managing Director to have an equally small-sized desk in the middle of an open plan office full of workers. In the West, status is prized and reflected in a large desk in a private office away from others.

This confusion has caused embarrassment for many Western executives who have felt that they were dealing with a staff member subordinate to the person they were actually addressing.


Many Western businesspeople feel that other less developed countries will be sexist and send only male parties to negotiate as a result. In China, a foreign female businessperson is in fact considered on the same level as a foreign male businessman. So long as the businesswoman is properly supported, the gender should not pose a significant problem.

The hierarchy of status of the forign businesswoman is higher than that of a local woman. The lowest level in the social hierarchy is reserved for foreigners of Chinese background. They are seen as “fake Chinese.”


In China, the concept of ‘face’ is highly important.

‘Lian’ is concerned with personal behaviour and how one is viewed in society. It would be wise not to ‘rib’ your co-workers in jest or make attack or assign blame on another person. This would be viewed very poorly.

‘Mianzi’ is prestige or ostentatious living. In the West it can be bemusing to see such devotion to brands like Louis Vuitton, for example. Westerners may see this as superficial luxury, but in many Asian countries, mianzi is important as it displays social standing.

Chinese are also less likely to make complaints due to their unwillingness to cause shame on another’s lian. In this regard, comparative advertising would not be a sensible decision for the Chinese market. For this same reason, a mediator is generally preferred when doing business so that the lian of the other party is not hurt and vice versa.

The final concept of ‘guangxi’ (gwungshi) is essential to understand. This refers to ‘relationships’ and is a key essence of Chinese culture. This is also in part why time works in a polychronic way. Relationships must be developed and explored for the long-term.


After you have selected your market, some recommend visiting the country and spending time participating and observing the daily rituals of your market.

Eat. Food is a great connector. Witness how people share food and often dine in noisy surrounds in close proximity to each other.

Also read English versions of local newspapers, such as:

China Daily 

Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan News) is one of the largest newspapers

Most prefectures or provinces will have their own newspapers.

It is wise to understand that most overseas markets do not consist of one homogeneous entity. China, for example, is not one market. It is made up of hundreds of very diverse markets with different levels of infrastructure, language, and consumer behaviour.

Last piece of advice: business cards should have the English on the front and Asian translation on the reverse. This is generally true in both Japan and China. The card should be given and received with both hands. Never write on the card you give or receive.

Do you have any advice to share?