While Hollywood and mass media culture sometimes depict anthropologists as savages (think Indiana Jones and his nemesis in the Raiders of the Lost Ark) or people whose work has little relevance (working in the background), anthropology is essential to navigating successfully through life today (and in the future) and is a key component of international relations.
Anthropology helps us understand different cultures, how social behavior has developed the way it has, and the inner workings of social culture. Anthropologists help us focus on important details of social behavior and culture of past and present societies. This helps those working in international businesses understand the cultures of other countries and make their relations smoother and more efficient. This study of human behavior does not confine the study of such cultures to the particular anthropologist’s point of view; it is approached with no judgement and open minds. It is driven by the hunger to discover more clues to our world’s past and the people that roamed it.
Anthropology relates to everybody. When we view other cultures or ask ourselves “what compelled them to act like that?”, we are doing a fraction of what anthropologists do. By questioning the world around us, we can find answers. Anthropology does just that and is especially important for those dealing in international relations. People need to understand how their culture varies from others, whether that be how eye contact is interpreted, or how to tell if someone from a different country is focused, based on their body language. By understanding what may motivate others, or interpreting reactions based on relevant cultural norms, international businessmen and women can avoid confusion stemming from the lack of knowledge of other cultures, and can help interactions run successfully.
While anthropology has many facets and covers a wide variety of studies, the specific study that most affects international business is cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology focuses on comparing and contrasting modern cultures. Understanding these differences helps international businesses understand who they are working with on a deeper level by seeing into their culture and how they live. Some think cultural anthropology means finding information about unknown civilizations that don’t relate to today’s world. However, in actuality, it gives us a broader view of society and makes some people realize that what they learned about human culture from their own society actually differs from others’ sense of human nature. We may view our own culture as the “normal” and “correct” way of doing things, but cultural anthropology breaks down that barrier and exposes us to other society’s “norms” and “right” way of doing things. All of this is important in international business to understand and connect with a business partner from another society.
One cultural difference found among different countries is how much space there should be between people to be at an “appropriate” distance. The study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication, and social interaction is called proxemics, and it was first developed by anthropologist Edward Hall. For instance, in Chinese culture, people stand very close to each other — having little to no space between one another is appropriate. However, in US culture, it is more common for there to be a few feet of distance between each other. Standing too close to someone in the US could make the other person feel uncomfortable and awkward. It is important to respect each culture’s “personal space bubble”, whether that be a couple inches away from each other, or a few feet away from each other.
Among other cultural differences pertaining to body language is physical touch. In the US, physical touch is common and includes shaking hands, patting someone’s shoulder, and hugging. Other cultures such as those in Latin America also use physical touch in greetings, and in Spain, it is even a cultural custom to give two kisses on the cheeks to someone you just met – this, of course, has changed since covid times, but it is slowly coming back. On the other hand, in Britain physical touch is very uncommon and people rarely hug, especially with non-family members. Of course, all of these traditions are not homogeneous across all communities in these countries, but it is important to have them in mind when going into a business meeting with people from different cultural backgrounds. It could be devastating to go into a business meeting prepared and confident, then start off on the wrong foot by giving the other members a hug when you should have stuck with a short handshake.
Some cultures, such as those in France, Germany, and the US, view eye contact positively, as a sign of focus and directed attention. Other cultures, the Japanese for example, see it as aggression or a threat of dominance. A similar issue arises with crossing your arms: some see it as a sign of being closed off and stubborn, others see it as a sign of focus and concentration. If someone dealing with international partners does not know these differences in culture, a business meeting can quickly fall off course and be sidetracked with analyzing body language and wondering why someone is challenging them by making eye contact, only to find out later they were really paying attention. Anthropology uncovers these cultural differences and disseminates this information so we don’t have to find out the hard way that a business partner in another country didn’t mean any offence, they were just concentrating. Understanding and accepting others’ body language as a part of differing cultures aid those working with people from a different society because people have varying backgrounds and cultural norms.
Other cultural differences to consider in international business
Another cultural difference found among different countries is time perception. In some cultures, it is ok to be 10-15 minutes late to a business meeting, but in other cultures that are extremely rude and will not be seen as acceptable. In Spain and Arabian countries, meetings usually start later than their stated start time, so it is accepted and okay to be late. However, in England, Switzerland, the US and China you will do well to be punctual.
There are also topics that are appropriate, and inappropriate, to discuss in meetings and those same standards apply to where an appropriate place to hold these meetings is. These standards vary by culture. In Spain, it is common to grab a coffee or a beer with a client and discuss business. In the US, it is uncommon for this to happen and most meetings are mostly conducted in an office or business setting. However, in the US just like in Spain coworkers may meet up for a beer after work, but will most likely discuss topics other than work.
This type of information is exactly what the study of anthropology can uncover for us. So watch Indiana Jones if you like, but don’t take those Hollywood anthropologists too seriously! Anthropologists can also wear suits and help you to navigate better on your international business meetings to help you thrive in your career!