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When “Yes” means “No” in cross cultural communication

You’re in a meeting and you ask your teammate if they can get their project done before next week. They say yes and go on to describe their plans with family who are visiting from India this week. What do you do next? Do you go on with your meeting expecting the work will be done, or do you stop and ask your teammate when they think they can complete their project? If you’re from a low context culture (like the U.S. , Germany or Israel) the chances are good you will choose the first option, but if your teammate is from a high context culture (like India, Korea or China) the chances are good you should have chosen the second.

The concept of high and low context cultures is an important part of cross cultural communication. When low context cultures communicate, most of the information communicated is right there in the verbal message you hear, but when high context cultures communicate there is minimal information in the actual message; the listener is expected to add a lot of personal and environmental information to the message. So you may hear “yes” when someone is really saying “no.” An article in Quartz entitled How different cultures say “I disagree” describes some of the surprising ways people from different cultures may say “no.”

“Germans disagree openly, considering it to be the most honest way. Americans and Finns are also admirably frank and direct. French people disagree openly, but politely. In the East Asian cultures, open disagreement is taboo—indeed most Asians are nervous about it. British people also dislike open conflict and use various instances of coded speech to soften their opposition in conversation.”

The article goes on to list some funny, and fairly accurate, examples of how people from different cultures prefer to express their disagreement, and recommends reviewing your message from the other person’s cultural perspective as the solution to better communication. But trying to understand your message from another cultural perspective is problematic.

Building mutual understanding usually means taking the time to actively listen to one another and check meanings. You may also want to avoid some things to improve cross cultural communication, such as slang, double questions like; “do you want to go on or shall we stop here?” and negative questions like; “don’t you want to go?” In English “yes” usually means an affirmative answer and “no” a negative answer, but in other cultures “yes” may indicate right and “no” may indicate wrong, so wording questions clearly may make it easier to mean “no” even if the other person doesn’t say it.

Ultimately underestimating the cultural side of communication can have unexpected consequences, but knowing the impact cultural context can have when you communicate, and taking the time to listen and check meaning will help you avoid misunderstandings, and missed deadlines.

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