Sangam Cross Cultural Dialogues

Cross Cultural Dialogue

ARE YOUR MULTICULTURAL MEETINGS EFFECTIVE? How to Facilitate Successful International and Cross-Border Meetings. — November 10, 2017

ARE YOUR MULTICULTURAL MEETINGS EFFECTIVE? How to Facilitate Successful International and Cross-Border Meetings.

BY SUSAN GANDHI SCHULTZ

global mtg 2

One of the main challenges my clients who do business internationally face?  Getting balanced and open input in meetings that involve diverse countries or cultures.

WHY IS IT CHALLENGING TO GET SOME CULTURES TO SPEAK UP DURING MEETINGS?

In a hierarchical culture, it is the senior most who speaks first, and the most.  Need for inclusive discussions, fear of making a mistake, or causing loss of face by disagreeing with others, are other reasons that prevent participation.

THUS, PROVIDING MULTIPLE AVENUES TO ENCOURAGE PARTICIPATION, IS VITAL TO FACILITATING EFFECTIVE MULTICULTURAL MEETINGS.

  1. Small Group Discussions.

sm grp

Avoid asking a question and expecting individuals to speak up right away.  Instead, give people a few minutes to discuss among themselves, or in their remote locations, before sharing their ideas.

This addresses the issues hierarchy, inclusion, and face, as well as language differences. 

  1. Round Robin.

    mtgs

For meetings with small numbers of participants, ask each individual for their input, but with the caveat that they “can pass”.

  1. Open Ended Questions

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Saying “no” or “I don’t know” can be challenging for face oriented cultures

Thus avoid asking questions that force a “yes” or “no” answer.  Instead of asking, “Do you have any questions?”, you could say, “Please take 5 minutes to think about questions you may have.”

  1. Written Text

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As much as possible, display written text versus only verbally asking questions.  Some cultures may hesitate to ask for clarifications if they cannot understand your spoken words.

  1. Frequent Breaks

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Have 10-15 minute breaks every 60-75 minutes.  Some participants may prefer to share their thoughts in private versus public, so be available for part of the break time.  And after the meeting too.

  1. Call on an Individual?

    1 person 1

The complexity of hierarchy, face, etc. can make this a risky option so use it only when you are certain it is appropriate to do so.

So when facilitating international, multicultural or cross-border meetings, keep your focus on your key objective: that of getting input.  And then adapt to the cultures involved.

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As an Intercultural Consultant, for over 25 years Susan Gandhi Schultz has worked with organizations to successfully develop global leaders, create effective global multi-cultural teams, guide expatriates, and build a cross-culturally inclusive workplace. She is currently authoring a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures, in which she shares insights from nationals from 30 countries on how to succeed when working with their cultures.

 

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5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE CONCEPT “FACE”; AND 10 WAYS TO PRESERVE IT — November 3, 2017

5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE CONCEPT “FACE”; AND 10 WAYS TO PRESERVE IT

BY SUSAN GANDHI SCHULTZ

FACE

 

At a team meeting, a Dutch team member made a presentation.  His Japanese manager commented, “Gillis, did you have breakfast this morning?”   What did he mean?  He felt Gillis needed to speak louder.  He was preserving Gillis’ face, by being indirect.

 So what is “face”?  And why is it so important?

This concept of face typically applies to cultures that are group oriented, where one’s identity is linked to that of the group.   A person wants to be closely and deeply associated with the group, and thus one cares what other’s in the group think about him or her.  In individualistic cultures face is less relevant, because one has more freedom to “be oneself”.

Face is a combination of reputation, self-respect, credibility, pride, honor, dignity and social standing. 

Some key aspects of face need to be understood:

  1. A person almost always wants “good face”. The concept of “don’t worry about what others think” does not work here.
  2. A person’s face can impact the face of the group. For instance, a senior manager who does not represent the team well, causes the team to lose face.  As the only daughter growing up in India, my reputation impacted my family honor.
  3. Loss of face causes shame. Recalcitrant children are often chastised with “Don’t you have any shame?” (along with my mother’s favorite, “What will the neighbors think?”)
  4. The more senior the person, the more important his or her face.  And lastly,

The concept of face can be so paramount, it can override objectivity, time and productivity.

There is an emotional reaction to loss of face.  I have seen many cases where loss of face has resulted in lost contracts, delayed negotiations, stalled work, broken relationships, employee attrition, dysfunctional teams, and financial loss.

What causes loss of face?

Public disagreement, especially when directly spoken is a major cause.  Similarly, publicly negating, criticizing, confrontation, or checking someone is a no-no.  Anything that could make someone “look bad” or be embarrassed in front of others causes loss of face.  In many Asian cultures, even in private one has to be tactful with such communication.  Admitting that you don’t know something, made a mistake, cannot complete a task, etc. also can cause one to fear losing face.

While the concept of face is predominant in Asia, it is also an essential part of many group and hierarchical cultures such as the Middle East and Africa.

So preserve face.

  1. If you have to disagree, do so in private whenever possible.
  2. If you must do so in public, be very tactful.
  3. Praise, before disagreeing with or correcting someone.
  4. Evade dissent altogether, and just present your view.
  5. Avoid contradicting seniors, especially in front of their reports.
  6. Similarly, avoid causing a junior to lose face in the presence of his manager.
  7. Avoid showing emotions such as irritation, impatience, frustration or anger.
  8. Smile, even when you are giving “bad” news such as negative feedback.
  9. Focus on the problem, not the person.
  10. Do not put a person on the spot. For instance, in a meeting avoid calling on one individual to participate.  Or praising an individual without including team members or leaders.

You will know that you have caused loss of face when there is disengagement, denial or outright demonstrative behavior such as vocal outrage or walking out.   Apologizing is essential.  In severe cases, the relationship might not be recoverable.

Thus, put face first.  Think, “How is my action going to make the other person look or feel?” 

If the answer is anything other than, “Good”, rethink your action.  You can always circle back to the issue; what you don’t want is to lose the opportunity altogether.

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ss.final PIC. Gabe.sep2017As an Intercultural Consultant, for over 25 years Susan Gandhi Schultz has worked with organizations to successfully develop global leaders, create effective global multi-cultural teams, guide expatriates, and build a cross-culturally inclusive workplace. She is currently authoring a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures, in which she shares insights from nationals from 30 countries on how to succeed when working with their cultures.

 

WORKING WITH INDIA? YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THE CULTURAL CONCEPT OF JUGAAD ! — October 26, 2017

WORKING WITH INDIA? YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THE CULTURAL CONCEPT OF JUGAAD !

by Susan Gandhi Schultz

machine-parts-vector-JUGAAD

If you have ever visited India, you might be flummoxed by the flexibility and chaos that seems to be exhibited in abundance. 

“Jugaad” is a combination of being clever, innovative, resourceful and flexible. 

It often is an essential survival response to an environment that is constrained by limited resources, disorganized systems, and low government support.  The concept of “chalta hai” or “let’s make do” goes hand in glove with this flexibility.  It also requires members of society to have patience, tolerance for ambiguity, and persistence.  Sometimes this improvisation is positive, and sometimes it negatively impacts aspects like quality and safety.  Of course, examples of this can be also seen in other countries in similar economic situations.

Slide1

The above picture was taken from the balcony of my niece’s home, during my 2016 trip to Pune, India, where I was born and brought up. 

From the top left to right, are examples of jugaad.

  1. Many homes have contraptions to extend living spaces.…often without the proper permits. The government person comes to check things?  That’s when “tips” come in!
  2. The street vendor with his makeshift store. Easy to move when the cops come!
  3. The negative part of jugaad: garbage deposited in the open.
  4. Have a low budget, and have produce to move and sell? Another practical invention – the handcart!  
  5. Very common to see scooters and other vehicles doing multiple jobs. I saw a scooter passenger sitting backwards, holding onto his empty handcart.  He had sold all his produce, so his helpful friend was giving him a ride home. 
  6. At the bottom left is the motorized rickshaw which in itself is a perfect example of this jugaad Streets are narrow, public transportation is notoriously inefficient and overcrowded, and money is tight, so the rickshaw is a perfect solution!  It is meant for about 3 people at most, but don’t be surprised to see 6 packed in.  Jugaad after all!

In cross-cultural interactions it is easy to judge; but understanding the contextual reality helps us to avoid doing so.

Indians can be simultaneously proud and frustrated with jugaad.  “Jugaad engineering” is an increasingly growing field of study.  Jugaad management looks for flexibility, thrift and inclusion, so as to meet the needs of the budget conscious and remote consumer.  However, when jugaad compromises quality, it affects the reputation of companies that are quality conscious, not to mention the impact on the consumer.

So when in India, be flexible, patient and determined.  And admire the tenacity and creativity of its people.

 

Here is a fun video on Jugaad     

 

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As an Intercultural Consultant, for over 25 years Susan Gandhi Schultz has worked with organizations to successfully develop global leaders, create effective global multi-cultural teams, guide expatriates, and build a cross-culturally inclusive workplace. She is currently authoring a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures, in which she shares insights from nationals from 30 countries on how to succeed when working with their cultures.

DIVERSITY, INCLUSION AND GLOBAL CULTURES: Are We Considering the Cross-Cultural Perspective? — October 19, 2017

DIVERSITY, INCLUSION AND GLOBAL CULTURES: Are We Considering the Cross-Cultural Perspective?

By Susan Gandhi Schultz

switz globe sculpter

                 In my many years as an intercultural consultant based in the U.S., I find that over the years we have certainly become more inclusive about workplace diversity in terms of gender, sexuality, disabilities and even generation.  However, there still is the continuing challenge of integrating international cross-border cultures with the Western corporate culture.  Even while Western expatriate leaders try to adapt to the local culture, the focus may still to be to influence local offices towards the “company way”, which may be rooted in the culture of the home office.  How do we integrate corporate values with local cultures?  Are we operating from what Mark Nielsen from The University of Queensland School of Psychology calls a WEIRD-centric (Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic) approach?  Maybe or maybe not.  Here is some food for thought.

When we talk about inclusion and diversity, do we consider global cultural differences?

Here are some examples of where employees from some Western companies think we are being WEIRD-centric and thus feel excluded.

CASE 1:   A Thai employee on an expatriate assignment in the US vented to me, “This company talks about diversity. They even have it as one of the core values.  But the way I see it, they just expect us to adapt to the corporate culture, which basically is the US culture.”

Is your company culture “ethnocentric”?

 

CASE 2:   Does this suggestion seem reasonable to you?Slide1

In an attempt to “spread” the corporate culture, signs like these were placed at strategic locations in an Asian office of a large multinational client.  Employees in that location felt offended.  They shared, “This is a cultural imposition.  In our culture this directness of communication is considered impolite.

CASE 3:   A U.S. supervisor lost confidence in her African expatriate employee. She felt he was not “management material”, as he did not seem to take initiative and work independently.  His take?  “In my country supervisors are more involved and hands on.  I am happy to adapt to her way, but she never discussed this.  She did not understand my culture, but instead just judged me.”  There are many such cases in which I have been involved.

CASE 4:    Are these ground rules typical for your meetings?

Slide1 As a consultant, I facilitate many multi-cultural trainings and these ground rules cannot always be applied.  For some cultures, open participation is not the norm, and public disagreement is disrespectful as it can cause loss of face.  In fact, “corridor or coffee room chats” is where much of the discussion is done.  For others, discussions with team members are important; hence the side-bars.  The issue is not the rules themselves, but that they are determined without considering cultural differences.

So, what are your multicultural employees saying?

It is crucial to understand key areas of cross-cultural differences, and how these impact key workplace functions such as trust and credibility, reporting relationships, feedback, and performance.  Cross-cultural coaching to leaders, managers and employees at large empowers everyone to be proactive in bridging cultural gaps, reaching their full potential and achieving organizational goals.

Look out for a sequel to this article, on facilitating multi-cultural meetings.

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As an Intercultural Consultant, for over 25 years Susan Gandhi Schultz has worked with organizations to successfully develop global leaders, create effective global multi-cultural teams, and build a cross-culturally inclusive workplace. She is currently authoring a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures, in which she shares insights from nationals from 30 countries on how to succeed when working with their cultures.

I Am Right! Cultural Perspectives — October 14, 2017

I Am Right! Cultural Perspectives

Slide1This story is not a true event, but how often do we believe we are right when we need to ask questions?!

[Radio conversation between a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier (U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln) and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995.]

Canadians:  Please divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid collision.

Americans:  Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians:  Negative.  You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid   ,collision.

Americans:  This is the Captain of a US Navy ship.  I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians:  No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans:  THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET.  WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE  DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT  VESSELS.  I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15  DEGREES NORTH–I SAY AGAIN, THAT’S ONE FIVE DEGREES NORTH—OR COUNTER-MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.

Canadians:  This is a lighthouse.  Your call.

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4 COMMON PERCEPTIONS OTHER CULTURES HAVE ABOUT U.S. AMERICANS — October 13, 2017

4 COMMON PERCEPTIONS OTHER CULTURES HAVE ABOUT U.S. AMERICANS

by Susan Gandhi Schultz

USA

 As a cross-cultural consultant for over 25 years I have had the opportunity to have thousands of individuals from over 60 countries participate in cultural effectiveness workshops.  Here is a summary of how many of them perceive (or mis-perceive!), U.S. Americans.  Again, some of these are stereotypes which means they may not be true.  However, this input can encourage us to pause and think about how other culture’s might react to our behaviors.

It also provides us with the opportunity to address stereotypes, have deeper cultural dialogue, and discuss the cultural values of everyone involved.

  1.   CONFIDENT OR ARROGANT?

A Swiss client of mine once remarked, “There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.”  Even in the school system, children in the U.S. are encouraged to participate in classroom discussions, and students are often graded on this.  A key requirement in U.S meetings is to, “speak up”, as this reflects knowledge and engagement.  Further, the U.S. is an individualistic culture, so standing out is encouraged.  Consequently, people from cultures where face and modesty are valued, often view Americans as opinionated and arrogant.  Even people from countries like Australia and Canada sometimes share this perspective.  Although participation is acceptable in these cultures, it is typically done when someone has something unique or important to add.  As an Australian stated, “Americans are more likely to be at the center, while Australians are more spectators.”   This focus on participation can even be a challenge for more introverted Americans.

  1.   HARDWORKING OR WORKAHOLICS?

American work ethic often means that people work late, take work home, and eat lunch at their desk.  Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, value work-life balance and tend to keep to standard work hours.  Home and office life are clearly separated.  They may thus view Americans as focusing too much time on work.  Many parts of Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America tend to take longer lunches, often enjoyed together with colleagues.  A Venezuelan once remarked, “Americans are going to have health problems; they are too intense at work, eat at their desk and often gobble down their lunch!”  However, in counties like Japan, S. Korea and India, long work hours in the private sector are the norm.

In Chinese business culture, success depends on guanxi or relationship building.

This is often done over dinner or social events, which means there is less time for the family.  A S. Korean working for a U.S. company in Ulsan related that when he started going home at 6 pm, his wife asked him what was wrong and shouldn’t he be at work.  These countries admire the U.S. work ethic of longer hours.

  1.   FRIENDLY OR COLD?

The U.S. propensity of smiling at strangers and asking “How are you?” gives the impression of friendliness.  Sometimes, this is viewed as being superficial, because this is a polite greeting and not an invitation for a deeper conversation.  Since the U.S. focuses on the goal, there is very little or no small talk at all in most work communication.  Further, chit-chatting during work hours is viewed as an unproductive use of time.  These behaviors can give the impression that Americans are cold or uncaring.  On the other hand, in Russia, smiling at strangers is not the norm, and thus Americans may be viewed as insincere.

  1.   RUDE OR CONFUSING?

Americans believe in “open, honest, communication”.  This is held true even if one has a disagreement.  Many Americans remark, “This enables transparency, and reduces misunderstandings”.  This can be viewed as rude or insensitive by some Asian cultures where face and feelings are a priority, and polite behavior is manifested in indirect communication.  However, Americans also believe in “agreeing to disagree”.  Further, the deep commitment to individualism means that a person has a right to their opinion.  Thus, when someone disagrees, it is quite common to say, “I am not sure I agree with you.”

This communication style is seen as not direct enough.

It can even be confusing to some countries in Northern Europe and parts of Latin America.  A Dutch person in this situation took this statement literally and responded, “Well, let me know when you are sure!”

Of course there are regional differences that should be considered.  For instance, New Yorkers are considered more direct than Southern U.S.  So, suspend judgment and take the time to understand all the cultures involved in your interactions.  This will result in less misunderstandings and conflict, and create a work atmosphere where you can leverage cultural diversity.

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As an Intercultural Consultant, for over 25 years Susan Gandhi Schultz has worked with organizations to successfully develop global leaders, create effective global multi-cultural teams, and build a cross-culturally inclusive workplace. She is currently authoring a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures, in which she shares insights from nationals from 30 countries on how to succeed when working with their cultures.

Culture Quest Answer — October 9, 2017
10 Tips for Negotiating Across Cultures — October 6, 2017

10 Tips for Negotiating Across Cultures

by Susan Gandhi SchultzSlide11. AVOID VALUE JUDGMENTS.
Is it dishonest when a street vendor in country charges a foreigner more than she would a local? How about when key points of a contract are stated not in the main part, but in the fine print? Is it unscrupulous to “exaggerate” or say you are “the best”? Cultures may view these actions differently. Value judgments result in emotional reactions, which block unearthing the facts and cultural realities. Consequently, decisions may be misaligned and valuable partnering opportunities are passed up. You may determine that this is not the right collaboration, but what we want is a decision based on objective analysis and not only emotion.

Stereotyping has no place in cross-cultural negotiations.

2. WIN-WIN or WIN-LOSE?
There is no right or wrong with either attitude, but learn about how the various players view negotiations. This can also impact how much is disclosed. A senior Chinese manager recently told me, “We will never tell you everything.”

To some cultures it is unwise to share too much, while to others this is seen as being honest.

3. WHO ATTENDS THE MEETING?
Some cultures are more equality driven and individualistic. Hence a single individual may have the power to make a decision. In such cases only one or two people may attend a negotiation. In more hierarchical or group cultures, such as parts of Asia or Africa, a larger delegation may attend. You may not need to change the numbers, but do your cultural homework so that there are no surprises.

Cultural Preparation is the key to cross-border business success.

4. HOW FORMAL?
Hierarchical cultures are more formal in meeting protocol including dress, seating arrangements, order of introduction, exchange of business cards, and who speaks or does not during the meeting. Other countries are much more informal and equality driven. Educate yourself so that you do not cause offense, or do not feel offended.

Match formality levels during cross-cultural business meetings.  Or explain your culture’s practice.

5. HOW DO YOU COMMUNICATE?
The Japanese have a concept of honne and tatemae, which roughly means that true feelings are not visibly or verbally expressed. In contrast, Latin cultures can be expressive.

“Face”, indirectness and harmony are vital to many cultures.

This means that during negotiations there may be head nodding and “yes” being said, but this may not truly mean agreement. Many “Western” cultures can be direct and open with disagreement, and this is viewed as positive. Learn about the communication styles of the cultures involved.

6. WHEN IS A DECISION MADE?
In cultures where an individual is empowered to make a decision, the process is quicker. Be patient with cultures where inclusion and escalation is required, as this means the decision may not be made at the initial meeting. Further, some cultures prefer to invest time in building trust and relationship. This could mean an initial part of a meeting or one or two initial meetings are dedicated to strengthening the relationship. Other cultures prefer “getting down to business” right away. Gather cultural know-how about this and clarify expectations.

7. WHEN DO YOU INVOLVE LEGAL COUNSEL?
In some countries, like the United States, adherence to governmental and corporate regulations is important, and there may be legal presence even at the first meeting. Relationship focused cultures may view this with distrust and an impediment to relationship building. Either way, it is productive to explain the presence and role of each team member.

8. EXPAND THE OUTCOME OPTIONS.
Avoid focusing on position. Cultural, political, economic and other aspects differ across countries. This means that the goals, needs and interests of the parties involved may vary. Explore and broaden the available possibilities and outcomes.

9. WHAT IS THE MEANING OF A CONTRACT?

The role of a contract in business negotiation differs across cultures.

For some countries, the signed contract is strictly to be abided, and trust is gained or lost on this basis. For others, the contract is a firming up of the relationship, with some flexibility to “revisit” the terms. Understand this, and explain your viewpoint.

10. ENGAGE IN CULTURAL DIALOGUE and BE FLEXIBLE.
The most productive way to avoid misunderstandings and clarify expectations is to ask questions and share your perspectives. This also means that flexibility and a non-judgmental approach are essential.

“For me, relationship is very important. I can lose money, but not a relationship. The test is, at the end of a negotiation, both must smile.” – Sunil Mittal

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As an Intercultural Consultant, for over 25 years Susan Gandhi Schultz has worked with organizations to successfully develop global leaders, create effective global multi-cultural teams, and build a cross-culturally inclusive workplace. She is currently authoring a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures, in which she shares insights from nationals from 30 countries on how to succeed when working with their cultures.

I Can’t Cope with School! Children and Expatriate Assignments. — September 28, 2017

I Can’t Cope with School! Children and Expatriate Assignments.

frustrated fce

By Susan Gandhi Schultz

In the last month I had the opportunity to facilitate three cultural sessions with families relocating internationally with children.

Research shows that if the family cannot adjust, the international assignment cannot succeed.

Here are some perfect examples. A family that repatriated back to the US with their elementary school daughter is in distress. Their young child attended a local school during their two-year assignment, and thus is struggling in her English medium school back home. Her mother has appealed to and pleaded with teachers and the school district to place her child in a class a year behind than where she is currently placed. The response? “Your daughter’s age places her in this grade…she will make up the work and be fine.” Her tearful and overwhelmed mother is at her wits end.

In second case, a young family from the Philippines relocated to California with three children and have enrolled them in a private school. The school is academically intense; and this is mainly driven by the local parents. The youngest child, who is 5 years old and in kindergarten has been told by teachers that she is “behind in reading and writing” and needs to be given extra coaching. The oldest, who is in grade 9 in high school, was asked by a surprised teacher, “You don’t know anything about U.S. History?!” The children are stressed, their self-esteem is being challenged and the parents are now debating if they should shorten the assignment to 8 months.

How can we help expatriate children to adjust to school?

In a third case, a middle schooler who had been in school in the US for 3 years is now struggling back in his home country in Asia. The issue? He is viewed as troublesome, disrespectful and arrogant because he “speaks out too much.”

Children are the crux of the family, yet there is little support provided directly to them. Even companies that provide cultural training, typically offer this to adults. Cases like these emphasize the need for direct connection with children.

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As an Intercultural Consultant, for over 25 years Susan Gandhi Schultz has worked with organizations to successfully develop global leaders, create effective global multi-cultural teams, and build a cross-culturally inclusive workplace. She is currently authoring a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures, in which she shares insights from nationals from 30 countries on how to succeed when working with their cultures.

Cross-Cultural Communication: How Cultures Say “No”. — August 22, 2017

Cross-Cultural Communication: How Cultures Say “No”.

By Susan Gandhi Schultz

Communictg

I am in process of writing a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures,  The value of this book is that is includes advice from the hundreds of global participants (who have attended my cross-cultural effectiveness workshops) on how to work with people from their countries.   Please feel free to send me some key advice from your country or culture.  I will compile them and share these on this site.

A significant cross-cultural communication difference is impacted by the perception of conflict.

One of the significant cultural differences is the ability to give “bad news” such as saying ‘no’, disagreeing or refusing.  Cultures that are more direct or “low-elaborative” are comfortable “calling a spade a spade”.  In fact, this is often associated with honesty, as in “open, honest, communication”.  Many parts of Europe, N. America, Oceania, and in some situations Latin America, are comfortable with this communication style, as this approach is not necessarily viewed as conflict.  Many cultures such as Asian countries value harmony and face.  Directness in communication is associated with conflict which is a no-no.  Add the need to show respect for hierarchy and this becomes even more challenging for those lower in the hierarchy communicating with those senior.  Hence these cultures avoid direct, “disharmonious” communication and find indirect ways to give “bad news.”

Conversely, in many “high-elaborative” or indirect cultures, (such as India, where I grew up), one can be fairly direct in close relationships (my relatives have no problem telling me I look too thin or fat or sick).  Similarly, elders and seniors could be direct with younger or juniors (such as my aunts or uncles telling me, even as a mature adult, that I should do this or should not do that!).   In many direct cultures this would be viewed as rude or invading one’s privacy or independence.

The key to effective cross-cultural communication is to understand the values behind the behaviors.

Avoid judgments of right or wrong.  One may still not be comfortable with the style, but not put the onus on the other.  When we do this, it is possible to open up productive cultural dialogue to understand where the other cultures are coming from.  Such as, “In my culture or to me, when one says ‘I will try’ I take it literally as a commitment.  What is your intent when you say that?”  Often it may take some trust and relationship building for more indirect cultures to open up…..and that is a topic for another day.

Below are some examples of indirect “no”, shared by people from around the world.

  • Maybe.
  • Yes, let me see if I can.
  • Yes, Yes, but I will have to first do…..
  • I’ll get back to you.
  • Yes, I want to help.
  • Yes, I’d like to help but I have to go out later.
  • Well, that seems very interesting and I would like to do it but I am busy now.
  • Let me see what I can do.Let me talk to my super
  • Maybe someone else can help you.
  • Let me try once I am done with this task.
  • Please do not take it personally, but I am not sure that will work.
  • I am not sure I understand.
  • Basically, I agree/ no problem…
  • I do not mean to offend you, but I don’t think that idea is workable.
  • We will think about /discuss it.
  • Yes, I understand.
  • I’ll try.
  • Let me ask my supervisor first.
  • I will do my best.
  • We will see.
  • Maybe I can help later.
  • We cannot promise.
  • I am so sorry, I want to help, but I cannot because I have to take my son to the doctor because he has been coughing…etc….
  • It will be difficult.

Depending on the situation, you will need to either presume a ‘no’ or else probe (gently) deeper.  What you don’t want to do is push for a “yes” or “no” reply…..the chances are you will get a “Yes” when the meaning is “No”!

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As an Intercultural Consultant, for over 25 years Susan Gandhi Schultz has worked with organizations to successfully develop global leaders, create effective global multi-cultural teams, and build a cross-culturally inclusive workplace. She is currently authoring a book on Working Effectively Across Cultures, in which she shares insights from nationals from 30 countries on how to succeed when working with their cultures.

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