Understanding how people communicate in different cultures isn’t just a courtesy that we extend to others in order to connect on social media – although that would certainly be a laudable undertaking. To business owners and managers, however, understanding communication norms in other countries and among other cultural groups is good business practice; particularly in our current age of global commerce.

In a very broad, general sense, there are two modes of communication — spoken and written language (we’re considering sign language and non-verbal communication to be subsets of the spoken word for purposes of this discussion). In Western culture and countries that are primarily English-speaking (such as the US, Canada, England, France, and Germany, for example) most of us are familiar with how we view each: if you want assurance that something will or won’t happen, get it in writing. In other words, we place a much higher value on the written word than we do verbal communication. In other cultures, however, that’s not always the case.

In Japan, for example, people usually to place a much greater value on verbal communication than written language. Other countries also tend to place more importance on informal agreements as opposed to formalized written contracts – Middle Eastern, Asian, Latin American, and Central European countries typically fall into this category. While written contracts drawn up in Western cultures are considered to be “ironclad,” a verbal contract made in a Middle Eastern country (for example), is often seen as renegotiable over time. Having regular conversations with your customer or business associate is essential in order to form the working relationship you’ll need to do business now and in the future. If you’re a business owner or manager attempting to work with companies from these regions, it’s a good idea to focus on building personal relationships and maintaining regular face-to-face contact if possible.

Although this may sound like a somewhat “loose” or informal way of doing business, it wasn’t that long ago that people in the US felt the same way. At one time, a man’s word really was his bond. To go back on your spoken promise would bring dishonor and tarnish your reputation. And reputation in business often meant the difference between success and failure. In many ways, that is still true today — no amount of online advertising will remedy a host of bad reviews posted online by disgruntled customers.

To succeed in a global marketplace, business owners need to not only be aware of how different cultures view verbal vs. written communication; they also need to respect those views and be flexible enough to adapt their own business practices as needed. Building strong person-to-person relationships with your customers and business associates in other countries, as well as right here in the US, can prove to be a huge advantage as we do business in the future. In fact, we might all benefit from remembering a time in this country when a person’s word truly was his/her bond, and live our lives accordingly.