In their works on cross-cultural business communication, Guang and Trotter (2012, p. 6456) observed that communication is among the most important business functions in the modern competitive market, especially for firms conducting business internationally. Actually, business profitability is largely influenced by its communication skills and strategies. The world has become a global village—multinational organizations are establishing branches in different countries across the world, thus necessitating the ability to communicate effectively across cultural and geographical boundaries. Failure to understand how different people communicate, verbally and non-verbally can be extremely harmful to a business (Guang & Trotter, 2012, p. 6457).
Understanding the cultural values of a people helps in easing cross-cultural communication. If somebody does not understand such values, it is possible to employ a communication approach that is offensive, consequently affecting the interaction between the people involved (Guang & Trotter, 2012, p. 6459-6460). For example, an organization can use certain terms or images in advertisements only to have a negative reaction from the targeted population. This is because most terms and images are culturally defined, thus, the meanings attached to them are not necessarily universally applied. This implies that what may have made a product sell much within a given cultural setting may serve is its greatest undoing in another different setting.
This study seeks to examine the cultural differences between China and Japan especially in relation to issues on intercultural communication and real-life diversity. The study will explore diverse modern literature in seeking to understand what different authors have written on the subject matter using the case studies of Japan and China. Of concern in analyzing Japanese and Chinese cultural differences will be intercultural concepts such as intercultural business communication, knowing other cultures, non-verbal language during intercultural communication, and message organization. The paper will also present a number of recommendations especially in relation to intercultural business communication between the Japanese and Chinese.
As mentioned earlier, among the business aspects that any organization needs to master is communication. This is particularly important for businesses operating internationally because the communication skills and strategies affect their profitability. It is unfortunate that some managers in international organizations do not fully understand the impact of the barriers created by cultural differences during business communication (Guang & Trotter, 2012, p. 6456). According to the study by Lillis and Tian (2010, p. 102), cultural factors may act as invisible barriers in business communication. In the globalized business world, it is expected that different national cultures play critical roles that affect their respective economic development, business policies, and demographic behaviors.
Every nation has its national policies that endeavor at protecting cultural heritage, diversity, and identity. The voice of cultural rights has been increasing over the years making it more challenging to do business internationally. Product marketers across the globe need to understand that the modern markets are not only global but also cross-cultural. Such awareness helps organizations and individuals conducting businesses in various cultural settings to be more sensitive to cultural differences, which is one of the major success factors in the world’s marketplace (Lillis & Tian, 2010, p. 99). Drawing from the works of Tian (2000), Guang and Trotter (2012) observed that “Failure to put a marketing strategy in a cross-cultural context of the countries where a company is doing business will work to the detriment of brands and business relationships” (p. 6457).
Owing to the fact that globalization is obviously an inevitable process, one may also argue that cross-culturalization is here to stay. The greatly increasing homogeneousness in the world as a result of globalization has not been successful in extinguishing cultural differences among and between ethnic groups, nations, and regions (Lillis & Tian, 2010, p. 103). Such a reality implies that if international businesses are to be successful, the managers must be proactive in acquiring the necessary information on how to respond to differences in ethnicity, nationality, and locality. Cross-cultural solutions, therefore, must be increasingly adopted in enhancing interactions and operations between and amongst business partners, customers, colleagues, and organizations (Guang & Trotter, 2012, p. 6457).
If communication amongst people from similar cultural orientations is often difficult, then it goes without saying that communication amongst people from dissimilar cultural orientations in relation to values, language, and way of thinking may be more difficult. In the latter context, miscommunication is almost inevitable, especially if the persons involved are ignorant of each other’s cultural background (Ferraro, 2002, p. 8-9). For example, if an organization decides to use an advert that has really been selling in Japan to promote the product worldwide, it is apparent that the advert will only be productive in some regions that share some cultural aspects of the Japanese. This is because some traits in the advert may send a different meaning to people from other cultural orientations, thus negatively affecting the sale of the product.
Features, norms, and values attached in advertisement messages appear in several different cultures to a lesser or greater degree (Guang & Trotter, 2012, p. 6457). This implies that understanding the significance of cultural values during the preparation of adverts is of great value in business communication. Determination of cultural value differences ought to guide a person in formulating strategies for international business communication. Ignorance of cultural meanings attached to different messages, whether verbal or non-verbal/visual may lead to misinterpretation of the intended message. Such miscommunications are to blame for the failures of most businesses within the international markets (Guang & Trotter, 2012, p. 6458).
Before a firm launches business in a certain region, it is advisable to conduct a study that seeks to examine the culture of the place. The cultural study plays a crucial role in market planning and in the determination of whether the product is likely to appeal to the locals. This can be achieved through the identification of cultural factors employable in supporting the business communication over the proposed markets. To realize their objectives, businesses employ the already existing factors while creating some new ones, which are more suitable to the situation. This is because business communications are subject to the influence of culture and the vise-versa—cultures are subject to the influence of business communications (Brunso & Grunet, 1998, p. 146).
Cultural influences also apply to business behaviors that are also influenced by cultures. For example, in some cultural settings like Japan, people expect gifts upon purchase of products, thus, failure to issue gifts may be perceived as insulting. In some other cultural settings, the issuance of gifts may be perceived as a bribe, thus an attempt to offer a gift to clients is unacceptable and inappropriate (Arunthanes, Tansuhaj, & Lemak, 1994, p. 45-46). If a person doing business in Japan where giving gifts is common ventures into a cultural setting where such behavior is unacceptable, issuing gifts may be detrimental to clients who may misinterpret the act. Such emphasizes the need to study the culture of a prospective business region before launching to avoid miscommunications, which could be detrimental to the business (Lillis & Tian, 2010, p. 109).
Businesses are not only affected by the primary culture of a people—but secondary culture also plays a very critical role in relation to the success or failure of a business. Secondary culture develops as a result of external influence upon a group of people, thus changing their value systems and beliefs or adding to the already existing values. For example, China and Japan’s interaction with the Western world have significantly influenced their way of interacting and doing business. Changes in some fundamental elements of a culture can also affect business communication. For instance, advertisements are strongly influenced by the language commonly used by the targeted population (Guang & Trotter, 2012, p. 6457).
Moreover, structures and budgets of advertisements are based on consumers’ styles of consumption and buying habits. In turn, these are influenced by the peoples’ norms and values on available media and material culture state. Several theorists, including Hofstede and Albers-Miller, have claimed that a people’s culture affects the theme choices and types of roles depicted in adverts (Guang & Trotter, 2012, p. 6460). Such is related to the underlying norms and cultures of a given society; therefore, every cultural element tends to influence every facet of advertisement, which serves as business communication’s key component.
Liu, Gallois, Volca, and Galloi (2011, p. 120) shared in the sentiments of Guang and Trotter by noting that cultural variations between people can have an extensive effect on business communication. According to Liu et al. (2011, p. 120-121), people from dissimilar cultural and/or social settings may be exposed to the same event but their widespread differences may lead them to interpret the experience differently. The authors further posited that the cultural variations, especially in verbal communication tend to be reflected in their respective use of language and translations. Successful communication is not just about what is passed across but how the message is passed to the targeted recipient.
The success of intercultural communication depends on an individual’s ability to understand the communication context (Liu et al., 2011, p. 40). One may not necessarily have to know everything about a given culture to be successful in business but the more a person knows the better for the business. Hofstede’s business communication cultural dimensions have provided a framework that is used in ferreting out information useful within business contexts. Some of the common concepts that businessmen should examine in relation to business communication include femininity versus masculinity, collectivism versus individualism, uncertainty tolerance versus uncertainty avoidance, and power distance. This study will use some of these traits in comparing Japanese versus Chinese business communication in relation to intercultural communication.
Numerous studies have perceived both Chinese and Japanese cultures as high-context cultures because of their holistic and indirect approach to communication. However, some closer analyses of the two countries’ communication styles have revealed that they are characterized by some extreme differences. It is equally important to note that some over-generalized statements tend to display drastic differences between cultures, though without giving a clear picture of the extent of the differences. For example, a statement like “Chinese are more direct than Japanese” (Kazuko, 2004, p. 1), though shows some sort of difference is vague because it does not clearly explain in what aspect are the two countries different. Such statements show some truth in relation to the differences in communication between Japan and China though they are quite vague. Effective comparison entails providing some more detailed and accurate information, which would make the interested parties make better use of the knowledge in planning and preparing strategies for business communication (Kazuko, 2004, p. 1-2).
As mentioned earlier, failure to understand the culture of the target market can have adverse effects in business communication. Guang and Trotter (2012, p. 6457) observed that successful business communication must be characterized by the knowledge of the culture of the target population. They posited that being ignorant of the culture can have devastating effects and may lead to misinterpretation, thus affecting the business. Some two incidences with Toyota adverts provide ideal examples of how cultural ignorance can lead affect business communication leading to misinterpretation. While making an advertisement with the Chinese as the target population, a person must be careful not to make any statement or use an image that insinuates Chinese are inferior.
A good example of such an incident happened in November 2003 when Toyota (a Japanese company) prepared some adverts that were negatively perceived by the Chinese. In one advert published in magazines and newspapers, the images depicting stone lions were used saluting a car from Toyota. The stone lions in China symbolized their country. The advert raised a huge outcry from the Chinese people who perceived the advert as indicative that Japan was superior to China that is why the stone image was saluting Japan’s product. The misinterpretation was a result of Toyota’s failure to understand that salutation or bowing down is a way of worship and if the stone symbolized the Republic of China, it would only mean that the Chinese were bowing to Japan or the Japanese were superior to the Chinese.
In a different advert, a Toyota SUV car was displayed pulling a huge Chinese military truck up a hill. The truck was being pulled using a chain. Toyota’s intention was to show Chinese people that if they bought such a car, it was so powerful that it would pull weight that seemed unrealistic. However, the advert raised a huge outcry from the Chinese who posited that the advert had deliberately used to show how Chinese products were inferior to Japan’s cars. Toyota had to hold a press conference thereafter and apologize for the miscommunication caused (Ken’ichi, 2005, p. 81).
Using Hofstede’s model to compare Japanese and Chinese cultural differences, it was revealed that their uncertainty avoidance levels greatly tend to vary. Uncertainty avoidance relates to the way people deal with the prediction of the future. A society’s belief of whether they can know the future determines the extent of their anxiety while addressing difficulties or confronting the unknown. In business communication, one must understand what a particular group of people believes about the unknown and the degree of anxiety the unknown situation causes. For example, during business communication, one should avoid making statements that show a high degree of uncertainty if the target for the message has high uncertainty avoidance level. Japanese and Chinese have very wide differences in relation to their uncertainty avoidance, with Japanese scoring 81 against 30 for the Chinese (“The Hofstede Center” n.d., para. 10-11). This implies that in a business interaction between Japanese and Chinese, it would be better for the Chinese to avoid using terms that indicate improbability or insecurity. Although to the Chinese high uncertainty would not be of great concern to them, it would do more harm to their Japanese counterparts.
This study also used Hofstede’s model to compare the level of masculinity between Japanese and Chine. Persons with higher masculinity scores indicate that such a society is driven by aspects such as competition, success, and achievements. A low score is indicative of a feminine society, where the dimensions used to define it include quality of life and care for others. In such a feminine society, success signs or achievements making one stand out in the midst of others are not valued or admired (“The Hofstede Center” n.d., para. 6).
The level of masculinity in Japan is extremely high, reading 100 and serving as the most masculine society in the world. Although Chinese masculinity is also high with 66, it cannot be compared with Japanese, thus, communication between the two may be affected by masculinity trait. It is possible for a Japanese to keep making statements that show very little concern for care and quality of life but full of focus on individual success. Such may trigger concern among the Chinese who though believe in success and standing out does not necessarily neglect other virtues such as caring for other people.
The level of individualism within Hofstede’s model determines people’s degree of dependence on society. A high score in the model indicates that people greatly depend on themselves, thus are individualistic, while a low score indicates that people are more dependent on society, and thus are collectivists. Using the model, it was revealed that both Japanese and Chinese are collectivist societies, though Japan seems to have more individualistic people than China (“The Hofstede Center” n.d., para. 4). This implies that in business communication, most of the statements for the two societies should be more inclined towards the society as opposed to individuals. However, Japanese businessmen must endeavor to lower their level of personal focus while interacting with their Chinese counterparts in business.
Equally important for businessmen to understand is the power distance of a given community before they decide to venture into it or promote their products. Power distance relates to the attitudes towards inequality amongst people. It is about the extent to which people accept unequal distribution of power and resources. A society with a high score in power distance is characterized by consciousness about hierarchical positions. China’s score in Hofstede’s model was 80 compared to the slightly below average of Japan. This implies that the Chinese believe in hierarchies and uphold inequality compared to Japan which seems to be somewhat conscious about hierarchies but also mindful of the degree of differences (“The Hofstede Center” n.d., para. 2-3). This implies that Chinese businessmen are likely to exhibit their power positions during interactions more than the Japanese. Such awareness will help the Chinese to be less dominating, otherwise, they lose business deals.
Although the Japanese and Chinese cultures share in most of their traits, the study has revealed that the two cultures have several differences, which can be detrimental to business communication causing misinterpretation if not addressed. Some of the recommendations from the study include:
- Of greatest importance in conducting business in either China or Japan is to understand their respective cultures. Although one can never learn everything about a given culture, it is advisable for anyone who wants to venture into business within a certain cultural setting to gather as much information as possible about that cultural context.
- Japanese uncertainly level is by far much higher than that of the Chinese. Chinese conducting business in Japan must seek to limit statements indicative of ambiguity or improbability. They must be specific and show confidence in whatever they present to the Japanese to minimize their uncertainty levels.
- Chinese are more inclined to collectivism, thus Japanese wishing to venture into China for business must customize communication in a way that it will show high appreciation for togetherness as opposed to individualism. Business communication with high praise of working together, helping each other and family is likely to be more selling in China than in Japan.
- Chinese are less masculine than Japan, which means some aspects of femininity in business communication will be equally appealing. A Japanese firm promoting its goods in China should incorporate some aspects of femininity in the adverts. Japan is a highly masculine society, thus business communication must be geared towards success and achievement.
Among the most important aspect of business, particularly for international businesses, is communication. The effectiveness of communication determines the success or failure of a business. In the modern business world, cross-cultural communication plays a very significant role in determining whether a product will sell in a given cultural context or not. The focus of this study was intercultural business communication and issues related to it, using the case studies of Japan versus China. The study has revealed that though China and Japan share different cultural aspects, they have a number of divergences, including power distance, masculinity levels, levels of uncertainty avoidance, and levels of individualism, which affect their respective communication.
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