Trade Communications Across Cultural Borders

By Robert S. Simon,
Regina Mundi Managing Director/Partner • Africa

Africa humbles me every day. I used to believe that I was a good communicator. American trained lawyer focused on complex private party transactions for almost three decades. I just never expected it to be that hard to communicate in sub-Saharan Africa, with English speaking, experienced business people. What I learned over the last ten years is that the culture of trade and the modalities of trade are so different here from those in North America and Western Europe that failures to successfully communicate are more the norm than the exception.

One of my favorite examples arises in South Africa, where I am based, and where I spend a lot of time speaking with business owners. There is an English word with which we are all familiar in some manner – the word is “now” – and each of us may believe that there is a universal English language understanding of what the word “now” means. I, for one, believed (past tense) that “now” meant “right away” or “without delay” or some other measurement of immediacy or instantaneous action. In conversation, my reasonable expectation of the speaker who says “I will do it now” is that the speaker will perform the task instantly and to the preference over all other commitments. Every North American and Western European with whom I have played this word challenge has answered with similar expectations.

However, in most of English speaking sub-Saharan Africa, and in South Africa in particular, the word “now” means something other than “immediate,” and more closely resembles the future indefinite condition. The word “now” can mean tomorrow, or next week, or some other future time but expressly not the immediate future. The word combination, “just now,” is even further removed from immediacy of action and pushes the hope of action further in the future than the mere “now” does.  So, “now” may mean tomorrow but never means today. “Just now” never means today or tomorrow but means some distant future. In business, this is the equivalent of the word “no” meaning “yes” (which also occurs over here).

Does the concept of immediate action have an English word used in trade or business in sub-Saharan Africa? Yes, and it is “now – now” which means immediate and top priority action. In trade or business this language barrier, for which “now” is merely an example, constantly arises to foil expectations and to undermine our efforts to bring our African trading partners inside the North American and Western European culture of trade. When an American is assured by his South African counterpart that the “order was processed just now” there are two very separate interpretations of this statement. The American thinks that the order was in fact processed (past tense) and the timing of the processing is reported as recently passed through the word “just” combined with “now.” But, that is the exact opposite of what the South African is expressing. He or she, regardless of race or ethnicity, is saying that the order has not been processed and may not be processed either today, tomorrow or the remainder of the week. The message being conveyed is that the order is in the line of order which at some future point in time will be processed.

Few communication experiences, such as that of the word “now,” best summarize the frustrations which drive ambitious or well-meaning business Western people out of Africa. The culture of trade with the West demands transparency, honesty, reliability and timeliness. The simple miscommunication using the word “now” more often than not is the first break in the trust required to do honest and efficient business. There are others which contribute to the breakage and ultimately render the relationship unsalvageable.  On the African side – no one has lied or been dishonest – the message was as intended. It was in the expectations created by the same English words that the failure arises, and it is a preventable failure.

There are many approaches used by North American and Western European businesses when entering the African markets. The local partner is one of many approaches, and in post-revolutionary countries frequently indigenous ownership is required in whole or in part. Selecting the partner presents the same communication challenge though inside the enterprise rather than outside. The better approach is to recruit a local agent schooled in the culture of trade and who can act as the soft filter for the relationship thus insuring that communications are successful. Finding a person who knows when “now” means immediately and knows how to convey that message – will make business more efficient and build up a culture of trust with the African side.



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