Understand the Culture, Grow your Business!

31st October 2017

Posted In: The Topic

The global marketplace has become increasingly more accessible for small and large businesses alike. After developing a footprint nationally, it seems logical to exploit the opportunities to do business internationally.

However, doing business internationally is not just about translating your website and becoming the next Alibaba or even jumping on a plane to Stuttgart and sealing a deal with a German buyer. It is about understanding the culture of the people you want to do business with, and who will hopefully become your customers. When going global, there are certain elements that need to be taken into account, as they have a great importance when trying to connect with international audiences, and these elements should not be taken lightly.

Words: Véronique Özkaya

Let’s start with something simple: time. Time is an important dimension in international business.

If you take your business international, you will probably attend professional meetings. The Germans or the Swiss are likely to be ready at 8:55 for a 9:00 meeting. The French may be 15 minutes late and that’s not considered rude. Qataris may show up one hour late, and that’s perfectly ok, to them. You may think people are showing up early, on time or late for your meeting. But it all depends on how they view time in their culture – and how you view time in your culture.



The way people view time also affects their flexibility. The Chinese excel at flexibility. They are good at changing last minute, but it also means that nothing is set in stone. In other cultures, if you set a meeting, you’d better make sure not to cancel or make changes at the very last minute.

When it comes to doing business online, studies show that consumers are more likely to make a purchase online if the website is available in their own language. It builds up the trust – if it is done properly, of course!

That goes for search too. Most people prefer to search online in their native language. If your website is available in your customer’s mother tongue and you have localised relevant content, it will improve your ranking in search engines.

Even if you may not be targeting audiences in Japan yet, and only focus on English-speaking countries, understanding the culture is key to success. Most companies believe that to target other English-speaking markets for their website, some term adjustments suffice: a car “boot” in Ireland, a “trunk” in the US… It is not that simple. A US page on your website may give you a professional boost globally, but understanding the importance of subtle non-verbal communication between cultures is crucial in international business.

Americans will be direct and brief, but Indians in general will be more indirect and nuanced in their communication.



In US and other Anglo-Saxon cultures, people are trained (mostly subconsciously) to communicate as literally and explicitly as possible: the message has to be clear and the communicator is accountable for transmitting the message clearly.

In many Asian cultures, but also in African, Latin American and Southern European cultures, good communication is subtle, messages are conveyed implicitly. The person sending the message and the recipient are both responsible for making sure all is understood.

Languages do reflect communication styles. For example, Japanese and Hindi have many words that can be interpreted various ways. In Hindi, the word ”kal” means tomorrow, and also yesterday, so you’d better understand the context!

English has 500,000 words, French only 70,000. It means that the same French word can mean different things. A “bûche” can be a cake or a piece of wood.

To hit the mark when communicating to global audiences, consider going beyond literal translation, which is what transcreation does.

Transcreation or “creative” translation recreates a message to make it sound as if the copy was directly authored in the target language. Cultural relevance, appropriate examples and tone are some of the elements transcreators consider when adapting content for a given market.

Tips for a successful global launch:

  1. Set yourself clear goals

What results are you expecting from the markets you are targeting (and why)?
What content will you be translating?

  1. Get good advice from professionals

What content should you translate or transcreate?
What are the most used languages on the Internet?
Should you use automatic translation?

That last one is an interesting one. Be aware though that while Google offers free translation (who has not used Google Translate?), it will actually penalise your website and affect rankings if the content you publish has been machine translated. How counter-intuitive is that?

  1. Re-tweak and be patient

Does your content require transcreation or is translation enough?
What markets seem to fare better than others?
Do you need to change your keywords to get better SEO results?

Véronique Özkaya is a Senior Manager at Xplanation Language Services, a top 40 global provider of translation solutions. She was also the Chair of GALA (www.gala-global.org), a global, non-profit trade association for the translation and localisation industry.