Listening is a guessing game in many cultures

Some cultures are relatively blunt and to the point. One rarely needs to guess what a Dutch, German, French or Israeli means when they express themselves in business. True, nuances and cultural clues may be be missing, but after some exposure, getting the point is pretty straight forward.

In other cultures, corporate communication is much more difficult to decipher. In some cultures, this  difficulty comes from face saving (e.g. Thailand, Philippines) ; in other cultures the difficulty comes from a cultural uniformity which negates the need to be explicit , like Japan. In the USA, the difficulty in figuring out what something means is negatively impacted by political correctness, which obfuscates clarity.

In cross cultural communication, a key skill that one needs to acquire is how to understand corporate communication when a lot is “unsaid”.

Example: A senior manager asks the Japan Office if he can visit the first week of August. The answer he gets is yes. Then, the senior manager asks how many people will be on vacation that same week. When he learns that 70% of the people will be on vacation that same week, he asks if the first week of September is better, and gets a “yes”, only to learn later on that this date is also unsuitable.

Here are a few suggested ways to get around this impediment of implicitness:

1) Don’t try to get people to be explicit. While it can be done, it is very humiliating for the other side.

2) Ask many people the same question and compare answers.

3) Learn to provide alternatives, as opposed to asking questions the answers to which are yes or no. (Do you prefer I come on this date or that date).

4) Listen very closely to what is not said. Watch eye content, pay attention, putting  all communication in (age, role, situational) context.

5) Watch for purposeful ambiguity. E.g, Is this a good time to meet? “Yes, it may be”.

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