While language, material culture, aesthetics and social organisation are outward manifestations of a culture, it is a society’s religious beliefs, attitudes and values that dictate the behaviour of its members.

Religious beliefs

A religious system refers to the spiritual side of a culture or its approach to the supernatural. Western culture is accepted as having been largely influenced by the Judeo-Christian traditions, while Eastern or Oriental cultures have been strongly influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Hinduism. Although very few religions influence business activities directly, the impact of religion on human value systems and decision-making is significant. Thus, religion exerts a considerable influence on people’s actions and outlook on life, as well as on the products they buy. In certain part of the world, such as Latin America, the influence of religion extends even beyond the individual or family and is manifested in a whole community’s deep involvement in, and devotion to, the church.

A society’s religious belief system is often dependent on its stage of human or economic development. Primitive tribesmen tend to be superstitious about life in general while people in technologically advanced cultures seem to have dismissed the notion of traditional religious worship and practice in favour of a more scientific approach to life and death.

To disregard the significance of religious beliefs or superstitions evident in a potential export market could result in expensive mistakes.

The failure to consider specialised aspects of local religions has created a number of difficulties for firms. Companies have encountered problems in Asia when they incorporated a picture of a Buddha in their promotions. Religious ties are strong in this area, and the use of local religious symbols in advertising is strongly resented – especially when words are deliberately or even accidentally printed across the picture of a Buddha. One company was nearly burned to the ground when it ignorantly tried such a strategy. The seemingly minor incident led to a major international political conflict remembered for years.
(Source : D.A. Ricks, Big business Blunders)


Attitudes are psychological states that predispose people to behave in certain ways. Attitudes may relate, for example, to work, wealth, achievement, change, the role of women in the economy, etc.

Western cultures, for example, value individualism and promote the importance of autonomy and personal achievement needs. In contrast, in many eastern and developing countries, there is a strong sense of collectivism and the importance of social and security needs. For instance, the Hindu religion imparts a type of work ethic that considers work central to one’s life but maintains that it must be performed as a service to others, not for one’s own personal achievement.

Stereotypes are sets of attitudes in which one attributes qualities or characteristics to a person on the basis of the group to which that person belongs. An international businessperson’s tendency to judge others by his or her personal and cultural standards instead of attempting to understand others in the context of their unique historical, political, economic and social backgrounds could, for example, be termed an undesirable attitude.


Values are judgements regarding what is valuable or important in life, and they vary greatly from one culture to another. People who are operating at a survival level will value food, shelter and clothing. Those with high security needs, on the other hand, may value job security, status, money, etc. From its value system, a culture sets norms, i.e. acceptable standards of behaviour.

Pepsodent reportedly tried to sell its toothpaste in regions of south-east Asia through a promotion which stressed that the toothpaste helped enhance white teeth. In this area, where some local people deliberately chewed betel nut in order to achieve the social prestige of darkly stained teeth, such an ad was understandably less than effective. The slogan “wonder where the yellow went” was also viewed by many as a racial slur.
(Source : D.A. Ricks, Big business Blunders)


The concept of space is different wherever one goes. In western corporate culture, the size and location of an executive’s office is usually determined by his level of seniority in the company. The locality and size of an Arab business executive’s office, on the other hand, are a poor indication of the person’s importance.

Conversation distance between two people is learned early in life – almost completely unconsciously. A western business executive, conditioned to operating within a certain amount of personal space, may feel uncomfortable or alarmed at the closeness and physical contact displayed in the Middle East or Latin America, for example.


Time also has a different meaning in each country. Western cultures tend to perceive time in terms of past, present and future. They are orientated towards the future and in the process of preparing for it, they save, waste, make up or spend time.

In South Africa, giving a person a deadline is a way of indicating the degree of urgency or relative importance of the work. In the Middle East, however, time does not usually include schedules and timetables. The time required to get something accomplished depends on the relationship. With South Africans, the more important an event is, the earlier it is planned, which is why last minute invitations are often regarded as an insult. In planning future events with Arab businesspersons, it is often advisable to keep the lead time to a week or less, because other factors may intervene and take precedence.

Some time ago, an American lost a major contract in Greece because he did not appreciate the Greek concept of time. The Greek executive could not understand the American’s insistence on setting time limits on the length of their business meetings – he and his colleagues were prepared to spend as much time in discussion as they felt was necessary. The American also insisted that the senior managers involved in the transaction be responsible only for working out the general principles of the deal, with the actual details being left to subordinates. Suspicious that this represented a lack of commitment on the part of the American, the Greek called off the deal.

Many factors continuously produce cultural changes in a society – new technology, population shifts, availability of scarce resources and changing values regarding the role of education or women. Culture is thus dynamic, and exporters, particularly those involved in international travel and marketing, need to regularly assess what new products and service needs have been created, who the potential buyers and users are, and how best to reach them.