The Importance of Language AND Culture in International Business Communication

Kathy Czako
Common Link English Language Training

We’ve all become accustomed to English as the “lingua franca” of international business, but what does that really mean?  Are good grammar skills enough to make you a good communicator? Or is there more?

My students are mainly European. They work in intercultural settings which means at any given moment they will be speaking or writing to someone who was born in another country -- in another culture.  In my classes and workshops, we work on improving grammar and vocabulary skills, but we also focus on an often overlooked aspect of international communication, cultural competency.

In 2014, I started collaborating with Nita Korsten of Crust Young, a consultancy firm that specializes in cross-cultural collaboration facilitation.  We have found that businesspeople sometimes forget that good communication is more than just a correct translation of words and phrases.  Language and culture must be integrated for communication to be effective.  

“I speak English, so let’s do business.”

This is a common assumption. But people also need to be able to say “I understand the culture of the person I’m talking to.  I know how to listen to what people say… and also to what they don’t say.  I know how to adjust my message so that I can be heard and understood.”

For example, Nita has found that Dutch businesspeople sometimes fail to recognize cultural differences with the US and assume that because they speak English, they don’t need to prepare. They’ll say, “It all feels really familiar. Can there really be cultural differences?”  The answer is “yes”! 

“Culture Influences Language”

To give you an example, Americans are taught from a young age that America is the land of opportunity and that people can achieve anything if they set their minds to it.  Earning good grades, getting into a good school, making the team, being salesperson of the year, winning the big game, winning the lottery -- the list of opportunities is endless and an accepted part of daily life.  As a result, this highly competitive, winner-takes-all attitude has crept not so subtly into standard American business language. For example, in describing their own products and services, Americans easily use superlatives like “best” and “highest quality“.  Likewise, an American résumé would be considered poor if it didn’t contain clear achievements -- the more measurable the better.  

The Dutch response to most of this boasting would be something like “Don’t’ stick your neck out” or “Act normal, that’s crazy enough”.  Conversely, to Americans, Dutch modesty could make someone seem, at best, unenthusiastic and, at worst, unqualified.  This does not mean that Dutch businesspeople doing business with Americans need to abandon their cultural norms and begin bragging as they might perceive their counterparts doing. It means adapting and finding a good balance.

“So now what?”

How can businesspeople increase their cultural competence and develop good cross-cultural business communication skills? The key is to gather information about the other culture, understand their views and attitudes, learn about differences in English usage and adapt communication.  And don’t forget that the judgments work both ways, so be sure to analyze your own culture and how your communication style may be perceived by others.


Please contact us if you like to help your teams increase their cultural competence and develop good cross-cultural business communication skills!!