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Blunders Made by Cross-Cultural Businesses

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Neil Payne photoWe often get many emails from visitors to our sites saying how much they enjoy the article on cross cultural blunders - Results of Poor Cross Cultural Awareness. We are constantly asked for more. Bowing to pressure we have therefore complied some more examples of how cultural ignorance can and does lead to negative (and much of the time humorous) consequences.

The following cultural blunders are therefore presented to our visitors and we would again like to stress that such examples of ?culture gone wrong? are presented in order illustrate to people how crucial cultural awareness is in international business today.

  1. Managers at one American company were startled when they discovered that the brand name of the cooking oil they were marketing in a Latin American country translated into Spanish as "Jackass Oil."
  2. ClientSide News Magazine pictureAmerican Motors tried to market its new car, the Matador, based on the image of courage and strength. However, in Puerto Rico the name means "killer" and was not popular on the hazardous roads in the country.
  3. A sales manager in Hong Kong tried to control employee’s promptness at work. He insisted they come to work on time instead of 15 minutes late. They complied, but then left exactly on time instead of working into the evening as they previously had done. Much work was left unfinished until the manager relented and they returned to their usual time schedule.
  4. A US telephone company tried to market its products and services to Latinos by showing a commercial in which a Latino wife tells her husband to call a friend, telling her they would be late for dinner. The commercial bombed since Latino women do not order their husbands around and their use of time would not require a call about lateness.
  5. A cologne for men pictured a pastoral scene with a man and his dog. It failed in Islamic countries dogs are considered unclean.
  6. Procter & Gamble used a television commercial in Japan that was popular in Europe. The ad showed a woman bathing, her husband entering the bathroom and touching her. The Japanese considered this ad an invasion of privacy, inappropriate behavior, and in very poor taste.
  7. An American business person refused an offer of a cup of coffee from a Saudi businessman. Such a rejection is considered very rude and the business negotiations became stalled.
  8. A Japanese manager in an American company was told to give critical feedback to a subordinate during a performance evaluation. Japanese use high context language and are uncomfortable giving direct feedback. It took the manager five tries before he could be direct enough to discuss the poor performance so that the American understood.
  9. One company printed the "OK" finger sign on each page of its catalogue. In many parts of Latin America that is considered an obscene gesture. Six months of work were lost because they had to reprint all the catalogues.
  10. Leona Helmsley should have done her homework before she approved a promotion that compared that compared her Helmsley Palace Hotel in New York to the Taj Mahal - a mausoleum in India.
  11. A golf ball manufacturing company packaged golf balls in packs of four for convenient purchase in Japan. Unfortunately, pronunciation of the word "four" in Japanese sounds like the word "death" and items packaged in fours are unpopular.
  12. In 1985 Bechtel pulled out of a joint venture in New Guinea. It seemed flawed from the start. Bech-tel had 33 months to build a new plant, organize services, and meet a production deadline or face financial penalties. They planned to place a mine at the top of a mountain in an isolated rain forest, creating a town of 2,500, camps for 400, a power plant, air strip, roads, hospitals, and support services (for natives who had never seen a Westerner). The natives who were recruited to work (while receiving 400 inches of rain during the rainy season) had no concept of private property, modern money, central government, or work regulations. The multicultural workforce of 5,000 was composed of mixed indigenous people and imported technicians from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Korea, and Philippines. The road builders did not believe in working around the clock (the contractor finally went bankrupt). Natives also did not like the work schedule so they went with bows and arrows to shut down telephone lines, roads, and frighten personnel. There was an 85% turnover in the native workforce.
  13. FEDEX (Federal Express) wisely chose to expand overseas when it discovered the domestic market was saturated. However, the centralized or "hub and spoke" delivery system that was so successful domestically was inappropriate for overseas distribution. In addition, they failed to consider cultural differences: In Spain the workers preferred very late office hours, and in Russia the workers took truck cleaning soap home due to consumer shortages. FEDEX finally shut down over 100 European operations after $1.2 billion in losses.
  14. Mountain Bell Company tried to promote its telephone and services to Saudi’s. Its ad portrayed an executive talking on the phone with his feet propped up on the desk, showing the soles of his shoes - something an Arab would never do!


"Neil Payne is Managing Director of Kwintessential. The UK based company provides a suite of services themed around internationalisation including translation, localization, design and online marketing. For more information visit"


Published - June 2012

ClientSide News Magazine -

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