Thursday, October 6, 2016

When yes means no, maybe? ‑ Intercultural communication

When “No” means “Yes” 
An American tech lead was traveling to Bulgaria to work face-to-face with a team of excellent software developers. He was looking forward to a productive collaboration because they had alreadyworked together remotely for a while. To his surprise and dismay, his every proposal was met with a “no”.  He could not understand why it was so difficult to reach a consensus.  Luckily, there was a local team lead who explained to the American that “no” does not mean absolute disagreement. The Bulgarian engineers were actually on board with his ideas; they just wanted to add their input, and the only way they know how to do that is to reject the original proposal. 

The goal of communication 
 One goal of work-related communication is to reach a common understanding about a particular problem or task.  In American culture, good communicators are often considered direct, straight-forward and concise.  When an American hears a “yes”, they assume consensus is reached; whereas “no” usually means a dead-end.
As it is clear from the story of the American tech lead working with the Bulgarian team, “yes” and “no” mean different things in different cultures.  When those differences were explained, the tech lead was able to collaborate successfully with his Bulgarian team mates. 

When “Yes”’ means “no” 
A story of an American businesswoman in negotiations with Japanese suppliers illustrates a similar communication problem: the American businesswoman heard a clear “yes” to a price she had proposed, only to receive questions about pricing a couple of days later. Turns out, her Japanese counterparts’ main goal was to avoid disharmony during face-to-face negotiations.
But probably the best phrase to illustrate the ambiguity of “yes” and “no” in other cultures is in Russian “да нет наверно” (da net naverno), literally translated as “yes no probably”, but which means “well, I guess no”.
In some cultures (Greek, for instance) saying “no” is just not done. So one has to pay extra attention to nonverbal communication — posture, gestures, eye contact—- to make sure an agreement has really been reached.
Such differences in communication style can be explained by the type of the culture your colleague has been raised in — high context or low context.

High context and low context cultures
High context implies that a lot of information is shared indirectly. France, India, China, Mexico, Eastern Europe are examples of high context cultures, where priorities are on relationships, with a lot of unwritten rules and information that is shared via nonverbal communication.
Low context implies that a lot of information is exchanged directly and rarely is anything implicit or hidden. US, UK and Switzerland are examples of low context cultures, where people follow rules and standards closely and are generally very task-oriented.
Identifying whether your colleagues’ are from high context or low context cultures, will help you to understand tricky phrases like “yes, no probably”, “we’ll see” or “let me think about it”.

Reaching understanding
If you are dealing with a colleague who belongs to a different kind of culture, it helps to keep an open mind about the immediate outcome of your conversation, and to pay extra attention to body language, tone of voice, eye contact and other wordless clues. Summarizing what you you had agreed on at multiple points in time helps to minimize misunderstandings so you can reach consensus faster.

Read more:
Erin Meyer, Affiliate Professor at INSEAD and author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business).