The Global Business Environment

In the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, a magically misplaced Midwest farm girl takes a moment to survey the bizarre landscape of Oz and then comments to her little dog, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto”. That sentiment probably echoes the reaction of many business people who find themselves in the midst of international ventures for the first time. The differences between the foreign landscape and the one with which they’re familiar are often huge and multifaceted. Some are quite obvious, such as differences in language, currency, and everyday habits (say, using chopsticks instead of silverware). But others are subtle, complex, and sometimes even hidden.

Success in international business means understanding a wide range of cultural, economic, legal, and political differences between countries. Let’s look at some of the more important of these differences.

The Cultural Environment

Even when two people from the same country communicate, there’s always a possibility of misunderstanding. When people from different countries get together, that possibility increases substantially. Differences in communication styles reflect differences in culture: the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, and behaviors that govern the interactions of members of society. Cultural differences create challenges to successful international business dealings. Let’s look at a few of these challenges.


English is the international language of business. The natives of such European countries as France and Spain certainly take pride in their own languages and cultures, but nevertheless English is the business language of the European community.

Whereas only a few educated Europeans have studied Italian or Norwegian, most have studied English. Similarly, on the South Asian subcontinent, where hundreds of local languages and dialects are spoken, English is the official language. In most corners of the world, English-only speakers—such as most Canadians—have no problem finding competent translators and interpreters. So why is language an issue for English speakers doing business in the global marketplace? In many countries, only members of the educated classes speak English. The larger population—which is usually the market you want to tap—speaks the local tongue. Advertising messages and sales appeals must take this fact into account. More than one English translation of an advertising slogan has resulted in a humorous (and perhaps serious) blunder.


A text list of eight different instances of where English translations resulted in blunders. Listed in order from top to bottom; -In Belgium, the translation of the slogan of an American auto-body company, “Body by Fisher,” came out as “Corpse by Fisher.” -Translated into German, the slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi” became “Come out of the Grave with Pepsi.” -A U.S. computer company in Indonesia translated “software” as “underwear.” -A German chocolate product called “Zit” didn’t sell well in the United States. -An English-speaking car-wash company in Francophone Quebec advertised itself as a “lavement d’auto” (“car enema”) instead of the correct “lavage d’auto.” -One false word in a Mexican commercial for an American shirt maker changed “When I used this shirt, I felt good” to “Until I used this shirt, I felt good.” -In the 1970s, GM’s Chevy Nova didn’t get on the road in Puerto Rico, in part because Nova in Spanish means “It doesn’t go.” -A U.S. appliance ad fizzled in the Middle East because it showed a well-stocked refrigerator featuring a large ham, thus offending the sensibilities of Muslim consumers, who don’t eat pork.
Figure 3: Lost in Translation

Lost in translation

  • In Belgium, the translation of the slogan of an American auto-body company, Body by Fisher, came out as Corpse by Fisher.
  • Translated into German, the slogan, Come Alive with Pepsi became Come Out of the Grave with Pepsi.
  • A U.S. computer company in Indonesia translated “software” as “underwear”.
  • A German chocolate product called “Zit” didn’t sell well in the U.S.
  • An English-speaking car wash company in Francophone Quebec advertised itself as a “lavement d’auto” or “car enema” instead of the correct “lavage d’auto.
  • In the 1970s, General Motors’ Chevy Nova didn’t get on the road in Puerto Rico, in part because “nova” in Spanish means “it doesn’t go”.

Furthermore, relying on translators and interpreters puts you as an international businessperson at a disadvantage. You’re privy only to interpretations of the messages that you’re getting, and this handicap can result in a real competitive problem. Maybe you’ll misread the subtler intentions of the person with whom you’re trying to conduct business. The best way to combat this problem is to study foreign languages. Most people appreciate some effort to communicate in their local language, even on the most basic level. They even appreciate mistakes you make resulting from a desire to demonstrate your genuine interest in the language of your counterparts in foreign countries. The same principle goes doubly when you’re introducing yourself to non- English speakers in Canada. Few things work faster to encourage a friendly atmosphere than a native speaker’s willingness to greet a foreign guest in the guest’s native language.

Time and Sociability

North Americans take for granted many of the cultural aspects of our business practices. Most of our meetings, for instance, focus on business issues, and we tend to start and end our meetings on schedule. These habits stem from a broader cultural preference: we don’t like to waste time. (It was an American, Benjamin Franklin, who coined the phrase “Time is money.”) This preference, however, is by no means universal. The expectation that meetings will start on time and adhere to precise agendas is common in parts of Europe (especially the Germanic countries), as well as in Canada, but elsewhere—say, in Latin America and the Middle East—people are often late to meetings.

High- and Low-Context Cultures

Likewise, don’t expect business people from these regions—or businesspeople from most of Mediterranean Europe, for that matter—to “get down to business” as soon as a meeting has started. They’ll probably ask about your health and that of your family, inquire whether you’re enjoying your visit to their country, suggest local foods, and generally appear to be avoiding serious discussion at all costs. For Canadians, such topics are conducive to nothing but idle chitchat, but in certain cultures, getting started this way is a matter of simple politeness and hospitality.

Intercultural Communication

Different cultures have different communication styles—a fact that can take some getting used to. For example, degrees of animation in expression can vary from culture to culture. Southern Europeans and Middle Easterners are quite animated, favoring expressive body language along with hand gestures and raised voices. Northern Europeans are far more reserved. The English, for example, are famous for their understated style and the Germans for their formality in most business settings. In addition, the distance at which one feels comfortable when talking with someone varies by culture. People from the Middle East like to converse from a distance of a foot or less, while North Americans prefer more personal space.

Finally, while people in some cultures prefer to deliver direct, clear messages, others use language that’s subtler or more indirect. North Americans and most Northern Europeans fall into the former category and many Asians into the latter. But even within these categories, there are differences. Though typically polite, Chinese and Koreans are extremely direct in expression, while Japanese are indirect: They use vague language and avoid saying “no” even if they do not intend to do what you ask. They worry that turning someone down will result in their “losing face”, i.e., an embarrassment or loss of credibility, and so they avoid doing this in public.

In summary, learn about a country’s culture and use your knowledge to help improve the quality of your business dealings. Learn to value the subtle differences among cultures, but don’t allow cultural stereotypes to dictate how you interact with people from any culture. Treat each person as an individual and spend time getting to know what he or she is about.

The Economic Environment

If you plan to do business in a foreign country, you need to know its level of economic development. You also should be aware of factors influencing the value of its currency and the impact that changes in that value will have on your profits.

Economic Development

If you don’t understand a nation’s level of economic development, you’ll have trouble answering some basic questions, such as: Will consumers in this country be able to afford the product I want to sell? Will it be possible to make a reasonable profit? A country’s level of economic development can be evaluated by estimating the annual income earned per citizen. The World Bank, which lends money for improvements in underdeveloped nations, divides countries into four income categories:

World Bank Country and Lending Groups (by Gross National Income per Capita 2015) [1]

  • High income—$12,736 or higher (United States, Germany, Japan, Canada)
  • Upper-middle income—$4,126 to $12,735 (China, South Africa, Mexico)
  • Lower-middle income—$1,046 to $4,125 (Kenya, Philippines, India)
  • Low income—$1,045 or less (Afghanistan, South Sudan, Haiti)

Note that even though a country has a low annual income per citizen, it can still be an attractive place for doing business. India, for example, is a lower-middle-income country, yet it has a population of a billion, and a segment of that population is well educated—an appealing feature for many business initiatives.

The long-term goal of many countries is to move up the economic development ladder. Some factors conducive to economic growth include a reliable banking system, a strong stock market, and government policies to encourage investment and competition while discouraging corruption. It’s also important that a country have a strong infrastructure—its systems of communications (telephone, Internet, television, newspapers), transportation (roads, railways, airports), energy (gas and electricity, power plants), and social facilities (schools, hospitals). These basic systems will help countries attract foreign investors, which can be crucial to economic development.

Currency Valuations and Exchange Rates

If every nation used the same currency, international trade and travel would be a lot easier. Of course, this is not the case. There are around 175 currencies in the world: Some you’ve heard of, such as the British pound; others are likely unknown to you, such as the manat, the official currency of Azerbaijan. If you were in Azerbaijan you would exchange your Canadian dollars for Azerbaijan manats. The day’s foreign exchange rate will tell you how much one currency is worth relative to another currency and so determine how many manats you will receive. If you have traveled abroad, you already have personal experience with the impact of exchange rate movements.

The Legal and Regulatory Environment

One of the more difficult aspects of doing business globally is dealing with vast differences in legal and regulatory environments. Canada, for example, has an established set of laws and regulations that provide direction to businesses operating within its borders. But because there is no global legal system, key areas of business law—for example, contract provisions and copyright protection—can be treated in different ways in different countries. Companies doing international business often face many inconsistent laws and regulations. To navigate this sea of confusion, Canadian business people must know and follow both Canadian laws and regulations and those of nations in which they operate.

Business history is filled with stories about North American companies that have stumbled in trying to comply with foreign laws and regulations. Coca-Cola, for example, ran afoul of Italian law when it printed its ingredients list on the bottle cap rather than on the bottle itself. Italian courts ruled that the labelling was inadequate because most people throw the cap away. [2]

One approach to dealing with local laws and regulations is hiring lawyers from the host country who can provide advice on legal issues. Another is working with local business people who have experience in complying with regulations and overcoming bureaucratic obstacles.

Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

One Canadian law that creates unique challenges for Canadian firms operating overseas is the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act (CFPOA), which prohibits the distribution of bribes and other favors in the conduct of business. Despite the practice being illegal in Canada, such tactics as kickbacks and bribes are business-as-usual in many nations. According to some experts, Canadian business people are at a competitive disadvantage if they’re prohibited from giving bribes or undercover payments to foreign officials or business people who expect them. In theory, because the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act warns foreigners that Canadians can’t give bribes, they’ll eventually stop expecting them.

Where are business people most likely and least likely to encounter bribe requests and related forms of corruption? Transparency International, an independent German-based organization, annually rates nations according to “perceived corruption,” (see Figure 4.8) which it defines as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” [3]

Transparency International reports on corruption and publishes an annual Corruption Perceptions Index that rates the world’s countries. A score of 100 would be perfect (corruption-free) and anything below 30 establishes that corruption is rampant.

Data from 2020 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index[4]

Corruption Perceptions Around the World (2020)



CPI Score


New Zealand




















25 United States












South Sudan





A score of 100 is perfect, and anything below 30 means that corruption is considered rampant. Note that since 2015, the United States has dropped 7 points on the CPI scale.

  1. World Bank Group. (2016). Country and Lending Groups. Retrieved from:
  2. Ricks, D. (1999). Blunders in International Business. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  3. (2017). What is Corruption? Retrieved from:
  4. Transparency International. (2020). Corruption Perceptions Index 2020.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

NSCC Fundamentals of Business Copyright © 2021 NSCC Edition by NSCC, Pamplin College of Business and Virgina Tech Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book