By John J. Capela

Importing/exporting isn’t just about business — you also need to study the cultures of the countries you want to work with. Culture affects all business functions, including marketing, human resource management, production, and finance. Culture is the total of the beliefs, values, rules, techniques, and institutions that characterize populations. In other words, culture is the thing that makes individual groups different.

For information on cultures around the world and how to use cultural understanding to become more successful in the global business environment, go to International Business Etiquette, Executive Planet, and passport to trade.

Aesthetics in a society

Aesthetics is a society’s sense of beauty and good taste. In particular, you want to pay attention to color and the messages that different colors may convey. Color can mean different things in different cultures. For example, black is the color of mourning in the United States and Mexico, white is the color of mourning in Asia, and purple is the color of mourning in Brazil. Green is the color of good luck in the Islamic world, so any item featuring green is looked upon favorably there.

Attitudes and beliefs

Attitudes and beliefs include predispositions — either favorable or unfavorable — toward someone, someplace, or something. Attitudes and beliefs influence most aspects of human behavior because they bring order to a society and its individuals. The better you understand differing attitudes and beliefs, the better you’ll be able to work with people from other countries.

Here’s an example: Although Americans tend to think that time equals money, people from the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America may feel just the opposite — they’d rather get to know you before discussing business. Arabs typically dislike deadlines, and when faced with one, an Arab may feel as though he’s being backed into a corner.

Religion

Religion is one of the most important elements of culture. An awareness of some of the basic beliefs of the major religions of the world can help you understand why attitudes vary from country to country. As an importer/exporter, keep in mind that religion influences all aspects of business. If you don’t understand and adapt to a culture’s religious beliefs, you’ll fail — that’s the bottom line.

For example, a company called American White Cross manufactured a variety of first-aid products and sold them throughout the United States and around the world. Because its corporate logo and packaging included a cross, it was unable to market its product line in the Islamic world because the cross is a symbol representing Christianity.

Material culture

Material culture consists of technology (how people make things) and economics (who makes what and why). The aspects of technology and economics apply not just to production but also to marketing, finance, and management. If you want to do business with other countries and you’re using new production methods and products, that may require changes in people’s beliefs and lifestyle — and change is never easy.

Language differences

Language is probably the most obvious cultural distinction that newcomers to international business face. Even though many businesspeople throughout the world speak English, your ability to communicate in the local language gives you an advantage and conveys a sense of respect to your potential associates.

Although knowing the local language is a positive, you can always use a translator. And not speaking the local language isn’t a reason to avoid doing business somewhere.

Nonverbal communication is often as important as written or spoken language. Gestures can have different meanings from one country to the next. For example, Americans and most Europeans understand the thumbs-up gesture to mean that everything is all right; however, in southern Italy and Greece, it conveys the message for which Americans reserve the middle finger. Making a circle with the thumb and forefinger is the okay sign in the United States, but it’s a vulgar sexual invitation in Greece and Turkey.