INSIGHT The Business of Culture


April 22 2020

The Business of Culture                   

The Importance of Cultural Awareness in Business

Matt Minshall

One of the great beauties in life is in cultural variations. Apart from the pleasure of learning about other cultures, its learning can be an important aspect of interaction for individuals, businesses and governments, and the responsibility of being aware of other cultures is a critical component to the successful outcome of all engagements.  Another word for diplomacy is tact and such an important tool is vital for the prestige of a country and indeed for the maintenance of peace.  While there are some decidedly untactful acts by diplomats, this article does not presume to advise governments how to behave; it is simply some thoughts on the significance of cultural understanding for business. Although most of the ideas in this short piece are valid for many cultures the key references are for Oman and its culture which is surely one of the most pleasant.

Much is said about the negativity of doing business with friends and family.  Such sentiments probably have merit as should things go wrong the consequences might be close and deep.  But business is much easier and more enjoyable if done between people for whom there is mutual respect.  The best and easiest way to get to such a stage, particularly when exploring new areas of global commerce is to understand the culture and to give it due respect. 

Whether considering material or non-material culture; art and clothing, or language, religion, gender issues, politics and such like, any variations between different cultures have no meaning until brought in contact.  When this happens, it helps to be culturally aware and, according to Geert Hoftstede this is: “The ability to recognise and understand the effects of culture on people’s values and behaviours” and this can be useful for business engagement.

Business culture is normally close to social culture, but its proximity varies.  The Western business connection to the niceties of social culture has become less apparent than in more traditional societies, such as Oman.  It is fully appreciated that many who may read this will have deep experience in Oman and the wider region, and for those it might at best be a reminder and hopefully confirmation, but for those in the exciting position of beginning to explore the richness of Oman this might be of interest.

Oman is a byword for courtesy and good manners and all interaction is thus enjoyable, and more so if you take the trouble to make yourself aware that social and business cultures are interwoven. 

When attempting to inform audiences of other cultures there can be a tendency initially to create a barrier and to talk about how to break down such blocks to progress.  The only variances or distinctions between peoples are the way we are brought up to behave, and in what we believe: our culture.  If the approach is one of looking at similarities first followed by studying variations in upbringing as cultural nuances, the path to understanding is more open and straighter. 

The Western approach to business tends to be perhaps overconfident in its purity.  There is an often-heard version of the frustration that they (the Westerner) could not get their customer round to their way of thinking; as a start point perhaps if they were to consider getting themselves round to the other person’s way of thinking there might be progress.

A key element of culture is language; you must be able to communicate effectively with your correspondent whether directly or through interpreters.  However, increasingly many Omanis grasp of English is at least equal to many British people, but one can still learn and communicate in the language of culture.  It is highly recommended that a few words of Arabic are learned, and it will be appreciated, but once they have been exhausted there is no reason why one cannot continue in English but in the Arabic manner.  One may continue to ask after the health of the person and his family, and to discuss the beauty of the country, the great welcome and so on, until the subject of business is broached by your host.

Knowing the rituals for greeting, seating and hospitality are worthwhile. Traditions are an important part of the culture; and the giving of hospitality is a great honour and should be accepted with respect and grace, and reciprocated.

Apart from the pleasure of learning about other cultures its learning can be an important element in preparing for a venture into a new region.  A better understanding and appreciation for the way people behave will be a contributing factor for the future harmony of mankind, and in the shorter term for business success.

Matt Minshall is a Founding Member of Translucidus, a market research and market entry evaluation consultancy, specialising in the Middle East. He is an OBBC Member, former British Army Officer and runs online cultural awareness training

[1] “How different one culture is from another has little meaning until those cultures are brought into contact with one another.” Oded Shenkar - Models of National Cultures

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