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Hermes – Journal of Language and Communication Studies no 38-2007
Jakob Lauring* & Toke Bjerregaard*
Language Use and International Business:
What Can We Learn from Anthropology?
This article addresses the role of language use in international business. It argues that
the impact of linguistic differences on the daily workings of international business
activities and communication is shaped by the way in which these differences intersect
with the social and professional structures of international ﬁ rms. Thus, the analysis of
management across linguistic variation requires an understanding of the character of the
social and professional ties in which international business is embedded. The intensity
of cross-linguistic challenges in international management is not given by the formal
character and structure of linguistic differences only. While the daily practices of language
use in an international ﬁ rm are shaped by its social and professional structure, linguistic
practices may also strengthen the social and professional ties shaping the dissemination
of information. The role of linguistic differences in everyday business communication
both shapes and is shaped by the character of social and professional groupings and
networks in an international ﬁ rm. For management, this means that handling linguistic
variation and challenges also requires a consideration of the speciﬁ c social as well as
professional structure of a given international ﬁ rm. The dynamics between language
use and the social structures in which information and resources are embedded and
communicated are multidirectional. This is especially clear in an international context.
The article is informed by material obtained through an ethnographic ﬁ eldwork in a
Saudi-Arabian subsidiary of a multinational corporation.
The business environment of today has changed in a number of ways.
First of all, it has become increasingly global through the gradual dis-
mantling of trade barriers leading to the formation of multinational cor-
porations and joint ventures. In addition, the business environment has
* Jakob Lauring & Toke Bjerregaard
Aarhus School of Business, University of Aarhus
Department of Management
DK-8210 Aarhus V
Jala@asb.dk - Toke@asb.dk
also become increasingly more competitive leading to market expan-
sion across the globe (Bhatia and Lung 2006). Thanks to these recent
developments in the business world, according to Palmer-Silveira et al.
(2006) cross-cultural communication and language use have become
one of the most important research ﬁ elds.
There are no doubts that language use plays an important role in the
management of international ventures. In a multilingual organization,
language can be described as both a necessary communication device
and an obstacle of management processes (Victor 1992; Gilsdorf 1998).
Language both facilitates and impedes the processes of control and co-
ordination and as a result, it also inﬂ uences the manager’s ability to
control international activities (Marschan-Piekkaria, Welch et al. 1999).
When managing across cultural and linguistic boundaries, communica-
tion difﬁ culties related to language have a great probability to weak-
en cross-cultural understanding in multinational organizations (Feely
and Harzing 2003; 2004). This could be problematic since the person-
al and organizational developmental potential of cross-cultural com-
munication is generally conceived as being crucial in the present glo-
balized business environment (Harris and Kumra 2000; Beamer and
Varner 2001; Harzing 2001). Subsequently, the understanding of the
role of language in the operation of multinational corporations is of
great importance. In fact, the successful international manager may be
the one that is able to manage cross-cultural communication (Beamer
1998; Beamer and Varner 2001; Bonache and Brewster 2001).
By basing our study on anthropological theories proposing that lan-
guage use is linked to social structure, we suggest that the social dy-
namics of language use is highly important to the practice of interna-
tional management. This is illustrated through an ethnographic account
of expatriates’ use of language in a Saudi-Arabian subsidiary of a Dan-
ish company. Through the analysis of how expatriates used language
strategically, we set out to outline the interrelation of language and so-
cial structure. Our main argument is that the social structure of the sub-
sidiary shapes how employees use and perceive language in daily com-
Language and anthropology
To describe the interrelation between language, communication and so-
cial structure we look to anthropological theory. Language and commu-
nication have been objects of anthropological inquiry for more than a
century and are central concerns within many different lines of anthro-
One central line of thought can be traced back to the founding father
of American anthropology Franz Boas (1858-1943). Boas’ work played
an important role in clearing the way for the modern conception of cul-
ture in anthropology (Stocking 1983). Boas opposed the evolutionary
and racist thought and separated culture from biology by advancing a
cultural relativist approach. According to Boas, culture could be con-
ceptualized in relation to the geographical distribution and diffusion of
cultural traits and their integration in speciﬁ c culture patterns. How-
ever, culture was not only to be found in objectiﬁ ed form in cultural
objects or traits, but in the way people confer meaning to their expe-
rience of objects integrating them into a speciﬁ c culture pattern. Boas
studied how variation in language and categories called forth different
perceptions of the physical environment (Boas 1911). As an immigrant
from Germany, he brought ideas about cultural particularism from Ger-
man philosophy to American anthropology, e.g. ideas of Humboldt and
Steinthal (Wolf 1974). Thus, the late Boas advanced a neo-Kantian con-
ception of culture as consisting of cultural-speciﬁ c principles for clas-
siﬁ cation of experiences (Sahlins 1976). This line of cultural relativist
research was further developed by Boas’ many students. One of these,
Edward Sapir, formulated in collaboration with Benjamin Whorf what
has become known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Sapir 1921; Whorf
1956). According to Sapir and Whorf the grammar of language was the
structure through which world-views were constructed; the structures
in language determined perception. Through the study of language it
was possible to grasp people’s perception of the world inherent in lin-
guistic structures. Thereby the work of Sapir was informed by linguis-
The view from French anthropology differed from American cultural
anthropology in several ways. Here structural linguistics as developed
by Ferdinand de Saussure (e.g. 2000) had a considerable inﬂ uence, es-
pecially represented in the structuralist approach to cultural systems
embraced by Levi-Strauss (1963; 1966). This structuralist perspective
was informed by Saussure’s idea of language as consisting of a system
of differences, langue, that determined the meaning of the individual
units of language as well as existed independently of and in an arbitrary
relation to actual speech, parole. Levi-Strauss found that many differ-
ent cultural systems of communication and exchange share an underly-
ing structure similar to the system of langue. Levi-Strauss was inspired
by Durk heim’s neo-Kantian idea that the structures of classiﬁ cation in
cultural systems such as religion are related to the social structures of
society. Levi-Strauss found that structures of exchange in kinship, myth
and totemism were sharing a similar structural logic to that of language.
Thus language has been one among several systems of communication
and exchange studied in anthropology, and questions associated with
language and communication concern general anthropological ques-
tions of how to conceive of the symbolic forms through which people
However, in opposition to the structural-linguistic approach to the
study of cultural systems informing anthropology in France as well as
the culturalist approach to culture patterns and codes in USA, a theo-
retical perspective emphasizing the practices, interests and motives in-
volved in the formation and use of meaning systems emerged. There-
by a critique was levelled against the structural linguistic approach of
Saussure and its distinction between langue as an abstract system and
parole as secondary execution (Gumperz and Hymes 1964; Wolf 1973;
The critique concerning the sharp distinction between langue and
parole was already levelled by Malinowski who emphasized how lan-
guage was functionally related (cf. Grillo 1989). This critique concern-
ing the conceptualization of culture and communication as abstract sys-
tems, codes or schemes was further elaborated in the 1960s by social
linguistics or what Hymes called The Ethnography of Speaking (1962).
Sociolinguists such as Hymes, Gumperz (1965) and Labov (1966) ad-
dressed the social, economic or political context explaining the varia-
tion in the formation and use of language. The focus was oriented to-
ward speech practice, everyday communication and how communica-
tion styles evolved in different speech communities.
Research questions developed within sociolinguistics also informed
some of the work of Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1977; Bourdieu 1991;
Bourdieu and Passeron 1994). Contrary to earlier contributions (Rad-
cliffe-Brown 1952), Bourdieu opposed the idea of the structures of
language or symbolic systems as abstract, self-sufﬁ cient systems im-
plied in the distinction between langue and parole (Bourdieu 1977).
Bourdieu strove to ﬁ nd an answer to the question of why actual practic-
es of exchange and communication follow paths differing from formal
prescriptions and norms (Bourdieu 1977). According to Bourdieu, actu-
al practices should not be conceived of as products of rules, e.g. gram-
matical rules. Instead they follow strategies shaped by the interests and
experiential knowledge of actors as embodied in their habitus (ibid.).
Being a competent speaker of a certain language is to have the compe-
tencies necessary to engage in the continuous transaction and negotia-
tion of its form and purpose (Bourdieu 1977; Bourdieu 1991). In other
words, producing a linguistic practice in accordance with the legitimate
norms of expression in a particular social ﬁ eld requires speciﬁ c com-
petencies not freely available for people to obtain. As people embody
different competencies, interests and resources guiding their linguistic
practice, their attempts to realize the same rules and norms will follow
different strategies or styles (Bourdieu 1991). Bourdieu ﬁ nds this logic
of practice in a wide range of ﬁ elds such as in the differentiation of the
styles of symbolic and linguistic expression in literary or political ﬁ elds
(Bourdieu 1991); styles of consumption in the ﬁ eld of cultural goods
(Bourdieu 1998); art styles and ‘schools’ in the ﬁ eld of art (Bourdieu
1995); styles of exercising discretion in administering in the ﬁ eld of lo-
cal-level bureaucracies (Bourdieu 2005); and strategies of competition
within the economic ﬁ eld of ﬁ rms. In analyzing language use in an in-
ternational context it can be useful to analyze communication strategies
as ways in which individuals contribute to the production and reproduc-
tion of social structures.
The ﬁ eldwork
This study is based on a full-scale ethnographic ﬁ eldwork conducted by
one of the authors of this article in a Saudi-Arabian subsidiary of a large
Danish multinational corporation - here called Dan Firm. At the time of
the ﬁ eldwork, the subsidiary employed 470 employees of thirteen dif-
ferent nationalities, mainly Indian, Egyptian, Philippine, Saudi-Arabian
- and 20 Danish managers.
The methodology of ethnographic ﬁ eldwork was applied during a
three-month period using participant observation and semi-structured
interviews as data collection tools. Participant observation was car-
ried out through the daily presence in the subsidiary. An explorative
approach allowing the researchers to be open towards new unexpected
information was selected. This has been done as a circular methodolog-
ical movement, in which new questions as well as answers were inte-
grated continually in observation schemes and interview guides (Spra-
dley 1980; Marcus 1998). The explorative approach departs from an
ideal of generating questions as well as answers in close relation to the
research ﬁ eld and subsequently adding a necessary ﬂ exibility during
the collection, analysis and writing up of the material (Marcus 1986;
Geertz 1988; Van Maanen 1988). Through observation and participa-
tion, research questions are developed, changed or focused upon in mu-
tual interaction with the daily activities of the informants (Jorgensen
1989; Schwartzman 1993; Olila 1994).
Altogether, 35 interviews were conducted with Danish expatriates
and employees of different nationalities. Generally, the interviews were
kept as an open dialogue between the researcher and the informant.
Apart from 16 interviews in Danish, all other interviews were conduct-
ed in English, all but one being with non-native speakers. The use of
an interpreter was deemed inappropriate and unnecessary, given the
possibilities of interpreter distortion during the data collection process.
The ethnographic qualitative approach to a great extent also utilizes
interviews, discusses and documents the ﬁ ndings gathered in the dai-
ly observation (Kvale 1996; Alvesson 2003). Thereby, the interviews
become an extension of the iterative approach introducing new infor-
mation and questions to the research cycle (Spradley 1980; Bernard
1995). Through the application of the circular qualitative approach the
researcher can reach an understanding of issues which the informants
may take for granted. Issues that are not mentioned but can be observed
in action – such as the relation between language and social structure
(e.g. Bourdieu 1977).
Case: language, power and social structure
Expatriating Danish employees in the Dan Firm Corporation had many
different purposes, and not all of them were valued equally. The pa-
rent company had formally described how the ﬁ rm, when sending ex-
patriates to subsidiaries, aimed at utilizing the potential for knowledge
sharing across cultural boundaries. The cross-cultural interaction was
meant to develop international skills such as language and knowledge
of the market and business situation. In spite of those general formulati-
ons, the Saudi-Arabian subsidiary was mainly perceived as a sales com-
pany. The Danish expatriate management was evaluated exclusively on
the basis of sales targets and market shares and for many years, Dan
Foods Saudi had been the Dan Firm Corporation’s most successful fo-
reign subsidiary. Those evaluation criteria had a great effect on the daily
running of the subsidiary in regard to cross-cultural communication.
All the Danes lived together in a large compound. This created a very
tight-knit group with a lot of socialization of members and newcomers.
The structure of the Danish group had a great inﬂ uence on the relation
to the other nationalities at the workplace. Hence, it was the decision to
maintain the traditional Saudi-Arabian organizational form in the sub-
sidiary. The subsidiary, subsequently, was organized in what could be
called an ethnically segregated hierarchy - nationality deﬁ ning all po-
sitions. Hence, one had to be European to be manager and Egyptian
to be supervisor. The Philippine employees often had good technical
skills and they were therefore generally employed in technical positions
or vehicle maintenance. The Indians were lowest in the hierarchy and
worked mainly in the production. In other words, there was an overlap
between ethnicity and professional hierarchy constituting an ethnically
segregated as well as vertically segmented workplace.
The ethnic segregation and segmentation could be said to somewhat
ease the daily communication because the different national groups
were able to use their own natural languages most of the time. Howev-
er, a problem of this particular managerial structure was that it fostered
a certain discrimination of particular groups. As an example, the Egyp-
tian supervisors would often give the best selling products to Egyptian
salesmen making it more difﬁ cult for other nationalities to collect their
sales bonus. The organization of the workforce – with very little inter-
action between the different nationalities - to a large extent also affect-
ed the use of language in the subsidiary. As the single British manager
expressed it: “we have very much a situation where the Danes are di-
vorced from the rest like feudal landlords”. Hence, it was very uncom-
mon to see employees of different nationalities engaged in longer con-
versation, while the national groupings internally exercised an exten-
sive informal socialization. This way the management didn’t involve
other nationalities in the discussion of business issues at all. As it was
expressed by a Egyptian middle manager: “If you want to work in this
company you have to be like those monkeys that cover their mouth and
eyes and ears. We have to be their monkeys”.
Even the British manager was kept out of the conversation and when
attending social arrangements, he was totally excluded from the con-
versation. He did not understand the language and could not even relate
to the content which was seen mostly from a Danish context. The Brit-
ish manager felt that the Danes were behaving so rudely that he did not
want to participate in the embarrassing scene. As he said: “Communi-
cation is only for the Danes. No question. Nothing has changed in that
respect. As you have seen it here in formal or informal get-togethers in-
evitably the conversation moves to Danish”.
Another example of the way the Danes tried to contain information
from the rest of the company was presented to me by one of the Phil-
ippine employees. He told me one day that ‘big guests’ would soon ar-
rive, so we should dress accordingly the coming few days. I asked him
how he knew that, and I was told that he had just seen the carpets be-
ing cleaned and had noticed that this happened every time ‘big guests’
arrived. At lunch with the other Danes later that day it was conﬁ rmed
that there would be a board meeting a few days later. Such an event was
never publicly announced or mentioned in other ways. Only through
the internal Danish conversation (or from observing the ﬂ oor being
cleaned) could the information be achieved. There was no formal infor-
mation system in the company but messages moved orally – both be-
tween the Danish families in the compound and between the non-Dan-
ish members of the organization. Even in eventful situations there was
no formal information, and employees outside the group of Danes had
to rely on rumors and guesses.
The Danish management was aware that information was spread in-
formally and tried to prevent other nationalities from acquiring knowl-
edge of the business. They deliberately spoke Danish when other na-
tionalities were in the room and prohibited the foreign secretaries to
read incoming fax messages. This was done to stop information leaks,
even though most of the information they tried to protect seemed quite
harmless to share with other employees – as the knowledge of an op-
coming board meeting. But the Danes generally were annoyed with the
curiosity of the subordinates and felt more conﬁ dent keeping informa-
tion within the managerial group.
It was explained to me by the general manager that it was a delib-
erate strategy to keep the management team all Danish to increase the
decision making speed and not having to deal with cultural or linguis-
tic barriers. The ethnical segregation strategy was applied by organ-
izing the remaining part of the subsidiary for the same reasons – to
limit conﬂ icts and misunderstandings communicating across linguis-
tic and cultural boundaries. Hence, language and communication style
was strategically used to fulﬁ ll the personal aim of the expatriate man-
agers. Through intensive internal socialization and recruitment of like-
minded people, the Danes reproduced the social structure of ethnical
stratiﬁ cation along with cultural and linguistic exclusion. At least in
their opinion this was the most obvious way to run the subsidiary efﬁ -
ciently. Even the managers of the marketing department refrained from
communicating with non-Danes, which left the department with very
limited knowledge of the customers’ and consumers’ needs. Instead, a
‘trial and error principle’ (informant) was developed to close in on the
right campaigns. This approach among other things, resulted in a mil-
lion-euro loss, when a commercial ﬁ lm was created showing a young
boy and a girl walking hand in hand. The ﬁ lm did not appeal to the Sau-
di-Arabian consumers and had to be withdrawn immediately. As one of
the Danes explained: “It is strange to work with a group of people you
don’t understand. We have some ideas but we really don’t know how
they differentiate the products. The idea is that the Saudi-Arabians can-
not be competent, because the general perception is that they are lazy
and they cannot read”.
The ﬁ eld study presented describes the effects of language use in re-
lation to the maintenance of a stratiﬁ ed social structure and has high-
lighted how important this factor can be in the execution of long-term
corporate strategies of international development. The Danish manage-
ment team of the Saudi-Arabian subsidiary strategically utilized their
powerful position to reinforce a general practice of language use that
excluded other nationalities from participation in the decision making
process. By this approach the managers felt they had a better grasp of
communication and could make fast responses to market changes. Fur-
thermore, through this practice the position of the expatriates could not
be challenged and decision making was comfortably in the hands of the
Danish managers. By using language to restrict access to information
and participation, the Danes placed themselves in a totally dominating
Conclusion: What can we learn from anthropology?
In this article we have argued that formal structures of language and
linguistic differences do not account for the role of language use in
shaping communication in multilingual ﬁ rms. Using an anthropologi-
cal perspective such as Bourdieu’s approach, it is possible to grasp how
the practices of language use in international business are shaped by so-
cial and professional structures. Understanding the impact of linguistic
challenges on international management requires an analysis of how
everyday language usage is informed by social and professional struc-
tures and the way in which these intersect with language communities.
In a situation where linguistic differences overlap with a correspond-
ing professional and social differentiation of the workplace, language
use may reinforce the embedding of information in closed professional
groups and networks. Consequently, language use in an ethnically seg-
mented ﬁ rm may contribute to the reproduction of a social or profes-
sional structure of ‘strong ties’ constraining the communication of in-
formation (Granovetter 1973). This question concerning the dynamics
between linguistic as well as cultural variation and social structure has
been a central research theme within anthropology. Further research
into the role of linguistic variation in international business could apply
anthropological theory to the interrelation between linguistic as well as
cultural differences and the varieties of social structures in which in-
formation and resources are communicated and transacted. Anthropo-
logical research may in this way contribute to linking the ﬁ eld of cross-
cultural management to the expanding ﬁ eld of research addressing the
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