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Why is Cultural Anthropology Important in Business?

A man standing in front of a map of the world

In a previous post, I wrote about how some Anthropologists go into the UX field (User Experience), and apply their anthropological knowledge to UX. But this is not the only application of Anthropology to the real world. There are tons of applications! In fact, there is a whole section of Anthropology, called Applied Anthropology, that focuses on the application of Anthropology to solve real-world problems. One application of Cultural Anthropology is to the world of business.

So, why is Cultural Anthropology important in business? Check out my previous blog post, “How Anthropology Can Be Useful in International Business” for some examples. In this blog post, I will share three more examples. These three examples were taken from the book, “The Art of Doing Business Across Cultures: 10 Countries, 50 Mistakes, and 5 Steps to Cultural Competence” which was written by Craig Storti and published in 2017. This book talks about cultural miscommunications that happen when businesses from the United States work with businesses in other cultures.

Anthropology and business. Three Businessmen from India shaking hands with each other.

Example #1: India

Here is the first example, which is from India. Kathy, an American businesswoman, is working with Dev, a businessman who is from India. Kathy is Dev’s boss, and she is talking to him about a payroll screen. Here is their conversation:

KATHY: How are you, Dev?

DEV: Great! And you?

KATHY: I’m fine. Hey, Dev, on this payroll screen— this isn’t exactly what I was looking for.

DEV: I’m very sorry.

KATHY: It’s probably my fault, but we did go over this last week, and I asked you if you understood.

DEV: Yes, of course.

KATHY: And you said yes.

DEV: Yes.

KATHY: But I guess you didn’t really understand?

DEV: Perhaps not. I did ask Raj, but he couldn’t help us.

KATHY: No, his team is not familiar with this screen. But you could have come back to me.

DEV: Of course.

In this scenario, Kathy is confused about 2 things. Why did Dev say he understood when he apparently did not understand, and why didn’t he come back to her and ask for more explanation? Well, there are cultural reasons why Dev did not do these things, and it has to do with social hierarchy and respect. In India, if a boss explains something to a worker and then asks if they understand, the person will say yes even if they don’t understand. Why is this? There are three reasons. Number 1: The worker doesn’t want to take up the boss’s time, because the worker knows the boss is very busy. Number 2: Saying they did not understand may make the worker seem incompetent. Number 3: If the worker says they do not understand, then it implies that the boss gave a poor explanation. This would be disrespectful.

Anthropology and Business. Two Japanese businessmen shaking hands and bowing to each other.

Example #2: Japan

Now let’s look at a second example, this time from Japan. Gail is a businesswoman from the United States. Kyoko is a businesswoman from Japan. They are talking about some proposed changes to a procedure manual. Here is their conversation:

GAIL: Has your group had a chance to read the new procedures manual?

KYOKO: Yes, they have all read it.

GAIL: Are they happy with the changes?

KYOKO: Most of them, yes. All but two people.

GAIL: Two out of ten, that’s great. I’m sure the others will be fine.

KYOKO: I can’t say. We will be interested to get their comments.

GAIL: So we can start implementing the changes tomorrow, then?

KYOKO: That might be too early.

GAIL: Too early? Why?

In this scenario, Gail is confused about why the changes to the new procedure manual cannot be made yet. The majority of the people approve of the changes, so Gail thinks it is now time to implement the changes. She is operating from American culture, which says that decisions are made when the majority of people agree. Every person gets a vote, and if the majority of people agree with something, then the decision process is considered over. However, in Japan, there are different cultural rules for decision-making. In Japanese culture, there is a focus on group harmony, and decision-making is a collective process. Every person needs to agree to a decision, otherwise group harmony is threatened.

Anthropology and Business. A compass pointing to the word "Business" with a Brazilian flag.

Example #3: Brazil

Now here is the third example, which is from Brazil. George is a businessman from the United States, and Rubem is a businessman from Brazil. They are talking about the delivery status of some pipe fittings. Here is their conversation:

RUBEM: George, I was just going to call you.

GEORGE: Hi, Rubem. I just thought I’d check with you about the pipe fittings before I go home for the weekend. They’re still going to be delivered on Monday, right?

RUBEM: Ah, George, perhaps not. My wife’s cousin and family came to us on Sunday.

GEORGE: Right.

RUBEM: We had no idea they were coming.

GEORGE: No, of course not.

RUBEM: It is their first time down here to São Paulo.

GEORGE: Right. How nice.

RUBEM: So we lost two days.

GEORGE: How’s that?

In this scenario, George is confused about why the pipe fittings will not be delivered on Monday as planned. He is also confused about how Rubem lost two days of work. George is operating from an American business perspective, where timelines and schedules are very important. However, in Brazilian culture, there is much less emphasis on time and deadlines. And, in American culture, business deadlines take priority, and many times people will stay late to work on a project in order to meet a deadline, giving up their time with their family or friends. However, in Brazil, family is a higher priority than business. When Rubem’s extended family members visited, he was expected to take a few days of from business and meet his obligations to his family.

6 business people sitting around a table looking at some charts and graphs.

Cultural Anthropology and Business

In all three examples, we can see how cultural differences caused misunderstandings and confusion. But if the American business people had some understanding of Cultural Anthropology, they would have been alerted to the differences in these cultures. Ideally, when American companies plan to conduct business with other cultures, they should hire a Cultural Anthropologist to explain the other culture and give insight into possible conflicts so that they can be avoided.

Learn More

If you want to learn about more examples of miscommunication between cultures in the field of business, check out the book I drew from in this blog post! This book includes many, many more examples, and is a must-read for people conducting international business. You can preview parts of the book on Google Books, at this link. The book is also available in Kindle format on Amazon for less than US$15, at this link.

Thanks for reading!