In an increasingly diverse and multi-cultural world with greater accessibility to foreign countries, the issue of language and culture and understanding the differences inherent amongst ourselves is becoming much more important especially in a business context. More and more Western businesses are seeking to take advantage of the relatively untapped Eastern markets as a more global perspective is beginning to emerge (Levitt, 1983). However, failure to understand the culture of the new market is a key hurdle that has to be overcome to stand any chance of success (McGoldrick, 1995).
Therefore, the following paper attempts to highlight the key differences in culture between these two opposing sides, analysing semiologically why differences in meaning making exist, and through discourse analysis examines how language and culture influences, and is manifested, in the way people act. The impacts of these differences in meaning making will be evaluated to highlight the importance of language and culture when attempting to build relationships with culturally different companies. The meaning of Culture
The concept of culture developed from anthropology and is difficult to define or explain precisely (Mullins, 1999). Atkinson (1990) explains organisational culture as reflecting the underlying assumptions about the way work is performed; “what is acceptable and not acceptable”. Culture is thus a “signifying system” through which social order is communicated, explored and reproduced (Cohen, 2002). Therefore, based on this definition it is quite plain to see that different countries, even companies of the same nationality, will have different working practices and these must be understood if relationships are to be developed.
For example, many failed mergers between companies have been blamed on a “clash of cultures” which can be essentially understood as the organisations’ underlying beliefs and values not being as compatible as was originally perceived, thus conflict arises over what is the best working practice. Brown (1995) acknowledges that when two very different cultures seek to merge, extreme problems of integration, coordination and control emerge, thus leading to lower levels of post merger performance.
I personally experienced this during my placement year when an American company was acquired, however its integration into the “group” was quite often stifled because of the incompatible IT systems and different administration processes that were used i. e. Electronic vs. Paper based systems. Why do differences in meaning making exist? Language and symbols are the means by which we communicate and make sense of the world (Jackson and Carter, 2000). If we do not communicate clearly using these mediums what we are trying to discuss, ambiguity and misunderstanding will be the result (Ibid. ).
However, poor communication is not the only cause of misinterpretation, indeed an individual’s connotative understanding of a signifier will differ according to cultural background, social class and many other individual factors (Schirato and Yell, 2000). Research has been divided between whether society is a backdrop against which humans choose to act and those who believe society creates or determines the ways in which we act (Hartley, 1993). Geertz (1973) argues that the boundary between what is innately controlled and what is culturally controlled is an “ill defined and wavering one”.
He goes on to say that all human behaviour is “the interactive outcome of the two” and therefore that both views are correct. For example, an individual’s capacity to speak is innate, but the capacity to speak English is definitely cultural. Meanings can only be fully understood when the social context is considered (Jackson and Carter, 2000). Our ideas, values, acts and even emotions are cultural products (Geertz, 1973). For example, the number 13 (signifier) to many cultures signifies bad luck, however in Chinese culture it is considered lucky because it represents the number of months in a lunar year.
Similarly, the number 4 may just bring up the mental image of the number, however in China it is considered unlucky because when spoken in Mandarin/Cantonese, it sounds like the word for death. Although this may not highlight anything to do with organisations, what it does serve to demonstrate is that something as trivial as a number can have a multitude of positive or negative connotations and that meaning varies significantly according to cultural contexts.
This also shows the importance of language to culture and how the two are intrinsically linked because language is a fundamental determinant of how the world is comprehended (Bate, 1990), and therefore this affects the culture of a society whereby meaning is derived through the vocabulary used. Therefore the consequence for an organisation is they must ensure that during any formal meetings or negotiations, nothing is said or done that may cause offence in that culture. Failing to understand each other’s underlying beliefs and values, and therefore cultural norms, will lead to poor relationships being developed at best.
For example, in Japanese culture there are very powerful norms of politeness and therefore it is considered very rude to say “no”. If you wish to refuse something, it should be done indirectly or just delay the decision until the offer is rescinded. In a business context this has significant implications because during negotiations, western managers have often complained about the amount of time wasted during meetings and therefore straining relationships, however it could have been due to their inability to understand and recognise the “no” signals (adapted from Hartley, 1993).
This highlights perfectly the findings of Hofstede (1980) in which he concluded national cultures exert a strong influence over organisational culture. Therefore businesses must understand the values of the country if relationships are to be developed because employees take their cultural beliefs to the organisation and therefore will in some way exert a certain amount of influence on the corporate culture (Mwaura et al, 1998). For example, an American company might have an office in Hong Kong, but the organisational culture will differ to that of the American branch because of the national influence.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic determinism, highlights the importance of the link between language and culture suggesting that language creates mental categories through which humans make sense of the world, and that the regular use of a particular language produces habitual thought patterns which are culturally specific (Baldwin et al, 1999). The point is raised that from this linguistic determinism perspective, language is essentially a prison (Cohen, 2002).