How Different Cultures Value the Spoken vs. the Written Word

How Different Cultures Value the Spoken vs. the Written Word


Communication can essentially be divided into two categories: the written and spoken word.

How the balance is struck between these two forms of communication – the point at which one needs to be exchanged for another – really depends on individual cultures.

Understanding the cultural attitude to when it’s appropriate to employ various forms of communication is important in a business context. In fact, knowing when to exchange one form for another can be a major key to success in international business.

Many cultures place a much greater value on the spoken word than the American working culture does.

In parts of the Middle East, you’ll find spoken word agreements are seen as seriously binding. A person’s word is linked to their honor, so verbal agreements are seen as important whereas written contracts are taken as memorandums of understanding.

The key thing is obtaining a promise from a business partner. This works both ways: it is important to consider what you are verbally agreeing to, rather than just assume the real fundamentals are the final written outcome.

Culture and the contract

Western working culture tends to place high-value on the written word, and this reaches its highest level of intensity when it comes to contracts. In the US, France and Germany written contracts tend to be seen as something that cannot be deviated from.

US contracts are drafted in agonizing detail that covers every eventuality.

By contrast, other cultures may not see written contracts as quite so set in stone. It can prove a challenge to Western businesses if your business partner alarms you by wanting to renegotiate terms that you thought were already agreed.

For example, Japanese culture may be highly formal and professional but contracts aren’t seen as being quite so inflexible.

Although a Japanese firm may have signed a contract, they may not feel bound by every detail of it – particularly if circumstances later change.

The different value that US and Japanese working cultures place on the written word tends to provoke many agonies when it comes to business relationships.

Seeing the bigger picture

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that a healthy and prosperous working relationship only happens when both parties feel the arrangements are beneficial to them.

Cultures that invest more in the long term relationship rather than in closing a deal that is beneficial in that instance may be more interested in continuing to find ways of working together – even if that means changing terms previously agreed in writing.

Many Latin cultures also tend to see the written word as merely a departure point for communications; a line drawn in the sand that perhaps marks an ideal point of departure.

For cultures that see written documentation as a binding source of rigid instruction, this can be highly frustrating.

In the worst situations, cultures favoring a rigid interpretation of what has been agreed to in writing may see a deviation from the written word as a sign of dishonesty. Cultures that take written exchanges more flexibly see this as a type of pragmatism.

When to bring in written materials

Different world cultures will also call on the support of written materials to a different extent during exchanges.

Japanese business partners usually expect you to circulate any documentation a few days ahead of the actual meeting. This is because they prefer to review everything carefully ahead of time.

You don’t necessarily need to send materials ahead of a Danish meeting but you’d better bring a presentation with you that contains the facts and figures backing up whatever you have to say.

Your Danish meeting is also likely to have an agenda that your Danish partners adhere too closely and in the order they are printed. But in Brazil the agenda is a much looser guide to proceedings: all the items on it may be covered, but possibly not in the order in which they are written.

You can certainly exchange written communications outside of a meeting but these are generally followed up with oral communication, such as a phone call.

Written communications on their own are not necessarily considered enough of an exchange in some cultures, particularly the most sociable ones.

It’s important to judge carefully the point at which you propose to move towards a written exchange, as the timing needs to be right.

Building Relationships

When doing business in China, introducing the idea of drawing up a contract might have to happen at a later stage compared to a Western working relationship. Introduce the idea of written business terms too early and it can be seen as a sign of bad faith.

It’s more likely, however, to be seen as fairly irrelevant to the real and more immediate business of building relationship capital, the most important activity to focus on at the start of any working relationship as far as your Chinese partners are concerned.

Commitment comes from the relationship itself rather than necessarily from written agreement.

That’s why it’s vital to get the relationship right before plunging into getting things in writing.

Oral exchange tends to be particularly valued in cultures where building the relationship between two parties is considered a vital precursor to doing any kind of business.

In places including Pakistan, Kenya, and Nigeria, building a relationship needs to happen in person before there can be any talk of work.

A Nigerian business meeting will start and end with plenty of social interaction; a vital part of the process of building working relationships.

Because of the travel infrastructure challenges, these meetings might take place over the phone rather than in person but the getting-to-know-you phase is still vital.

In Germany, the opposite is true. Germans tend to have little time for small talk, preferring to get straight to business.

It’s well worth remembering that the important thing is to do business, not impose your own working culture on your partner organization.

If obligations come from relationships rather than written exchanges, then you’ll need to adapt accordingly and form the relevant relationships.

‘Go with the flow’ is usually the best advice for any company trying to do business abroad but it’s also a good idea to get advice from a third party that has experience in the culture and understands the best way to reach an agreement.

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