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How Anthropology Can Be Useful in International Business

Two men in business suits shaking hands


You might read the title of this blog post and think, how can Anthropology be useful in international business? Isn’t Anthropology digging up arrowheads and studying human bones? Well, yes, Anthropology includes these things, but Anthropology also includes the study of cultures around the world. There are 4 fields to Anthropology, and one of these fields is Cultural Anthropology, which studies different cultures. Cultural Anthropology can be useful to business in many ways. Here are just a few examples of how knowledge about different cultures can affect business.

Let’s say that you are an American businessman, and you are hoping to strike a deal with a businessman from Albania. At one point in your discussion, you ask if the person is interested in your offer. The man shakes his head from side to side. You are disappointed that the answer is no, and you abruptly conclude the meeting in order to seek another partnership elsewhere. However, you didn’t know that in Albania, shaking the head from side to side actually means “yes” and so you lost out on a potentially successful business partnership.

Now let’s say that you are an American businesswoman, and you are in a meeting with a businesswoman from Afghanistan. She asks you what the status is of the latest project is, and you give an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The woman is horrified, and gets up from the table and rushes out of the room. She does not return. You are left wondering what went wrong. You had no idea that in Afghan culture, the thumbs-up gesture means the same as giving someone the middle finger in American culture.

Two men in gray business suits shaking hands

And now let’s say that you own a small business that is exporting goods to China. To show that the goods have passed a quality inspection, you place a small yellow tag on each item. After some time, you notice that the Chinese customers are not buying your products. You didn’t know that in China, a yellow tag means that the product is defective, and as a result, you lost business.

Now, say that you work for an appliance company that is trying to expand and sell its products in Hong Kong. All the appliances are white, which is a popular choice in the United States. However, no one in Hong Kong is buying your company’s appliances. You had no idea that in some Asian cultures, the color white is associated with death, and that’s why no one was buying the white appliances.

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I hope you can see from these examples how knowledge of other cultures can be helpful in business settings. If you would like to learn more about cultural differences in international business, check out the Forbes article, “Connecting Abroad: The Cultural Etiquette of International Business.”

Thanks for reading!