3 Critical Factors for Cultural Sensitivity in Business
By Joseph Cappa, D.B.A., MBA, Program Chair of Business and Management
If you’re studying international business, then you’re learning how unique social, legal, political and cultural factors affect business dynamics. To be effective, you need to have an open mind, great observation skills and most importantly, cultural sensitivity.
What is Cultural Sensitivity?
Two things drive cultural sensitivity: empathy and objectivity.
Having empathy for other cultures means you’re able to recognize and accept differences that manifest in social situations. Being objective means you don’t hold preconceptions about other cultures. Viewing your own culture as well as foreign cultures objectively is important because it allows you to recognize similarities and differences, and then respond with empathy.
Why Cultural Sensitivity Affects Business
Culture changes the very definition of “business.” Although cross-cultural companies who do business together usually have similar goals, the path toward achieving those goals can be wildly different.
Here are three factors that are heavily influenced by cultural context:
- Language and Communication
When two countries doing business speak different languages, communication is the most obvious barrier they face.
One solution is to learn a second language, but you must become fluent to conduct business effectively. The smallest error could be disastrous.
For example, many languages are gendered, meaning that nouns can be feminine or masculine. So “the” in French is either “le” (masculine) or “la” (feminine). If you were to slip up and mistake a “la” for a “le,” your French business partners might think you are ignorant or inexperienced, which could affect your negotiations.
When you’re introduced to another business professional in the U.S., you shake hands. But in other cultures you might hug, bow, or kiss each other on the cheek. Being aware of another culture’s etiquette is crucial because making a mistake with even a small gesture can offend someone.
In the U.S., coming to an agreement is a matter of yes or no. But in many other cultures, business negotiations aren’t so straightforward. For example, in Japan it’s considered rude to say "no," so business professionals have to answer by guiding the conversation toward different options. This subtle cultural difference can have a huge impact on cross-cultural decision-making. International business professionals must understand the ins and outs of negotiating in other countries.
Take a Multicultural Approach
Cultural sensitivity doesn’t simply mean understanding how another culture differs from your own. It’s also about understanding the social, racial and cultural differences that exist within a society, and this is known as multiculturalism. The more you understand how class, race, religion and other factors are viewed by citizens of a country, the better-equipped you’ll be to collaborate with a variety of people. Understanding the depth of cultural diversity within a single country shows that you have enough cultural sensitivity to recognize the nuances.
Joseph Cappa, D.B.A, MBA, program chair of Business and Management at Colorado Technical University brings over five years of experience in higher education. Dr. Cappa earned an MBA from North Park University and D.B.A from Argosy University Chicago. He is currently pursuing his postdoctoral certificate in global leadership from CTU. Connect with Dr. Cappa on LinkedIn.
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