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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6 thoughts on “Listening is a guessing game in many cultures

  1. Asking multiple parties the same question works great in situations where there is complexity and or hand offs. Initally people may see or understand a situation based on their particular role and or background. I explain this as a glass lense. Everyone’s lense/interpretation is a complex network and color of life experiences. If you get multiple viewpoints it will disclose a Broadview of a situation.

  2. I am always amazed when I see a Westerner asking the same question in such contexts over and over again, consistently getting an ambiguous “maybe -sometime -one day” answer (which basically means NO! NO! NO!), and still insisting on obtaining an explicit “yes or no” . It is even funnier to see people he keeps asking looking at each other in amazement: “How cannot he get what we are trying to say?”

  3. Something I’ve found works well when one is explicit and dealing with avoidance:
    Instead of asking for an explicit yes, ask for an explicit no.

    Example:
    My goal is to meet with as many employees as possible. If 75% are not present, that is not good for me. When we meet I want to XYZ. If your company is not interested, that is perfectly ok. I can go somewhere else. If your company is interested I need a date when at least 75% are present.

    Would you prefer I go somewhere else?

  4. While I think I understand the intent of this blog post, I am at a loss as to how to make good use of it. In particular, the suggestion to “ask many people the same question and compare answers leaves me wondering, “then what?”

    If I start with your example of being the “senior manager” asking the Japan Office, just who am I asking??? Then if I ask others, whom should I be asking???

    I certainly agree that it is important to learn to listen attentatively, especially across cultures. However, I am missing what I believe could be a more valuable and explicit discussion on listening here.

  5. One of the things that make cross cultural communication more difficult is that the person not speaking his mother tongue his preparing what to say while the other person is speaking rather than focusing on listening.
    In twenty years workin closely with Japanese partners I saw this at close quarters and the chaos it caused.
    Try to put yourself in their place and remember it’s not what you say that matters it’s what is heard. By listening to their reply you can determine if your message was received correctly.

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