Yes, but no, but…

I met Kerstin, consultant for GPiPartner ( at South Kensington station and we walked to the V&A museum to have lunch in the beautiful piazza and talk about cultural differences, identity and globalisation. It is always good to talk to someone who shares the same interests. Time flies, your brain goes a 100 mph and, I apologise to Kerstin, so many thoughts and ideas come up we hopped from topic to topic. One of the main questions that silenced me for a moment is the challenge for those of us who are direct in their communication to interact with those who are indirect.

Kerstin told me that her clients sometimes struggle when, due to globalization, a team in, for example, the UK needs to work together with a team in, for example, India or China because the latter colleagues may say ‘yes’ to a timetable or a way of executing a  project but mean ‘no’ or ‘maybe’. It is the one issue I’ve heard about when I speak to people about their work, whether it’s those in my network who work for large companies like IBM or Barclays, or those who are training a small team when they’re sent overseas as an expat. I agreed that we face the same challenge in education when we teach students from countries like China, Vietnam, India, etc.

Hall called it high context vs low context, Kim called it conversational constraints, Ting-Toomey and Gudykunst called it ‘positive and negative face’. Although these concepts give the problem a name, the solution is not that straight forward. Now, Kerstin’s example may be because the Indian team wants to maintain harmony (Kim), save face (Ting-Toomey) or come from a culture that is high context (Hall). The problem is, what do you do as a team manager from a (business) culture that does not work that way?

It left me wondering if people from high context cultures who prefer communicating indirectly view those who communicate directly? Is it easy for them? Do they view the other as rude and obnoxious? Then, I pondered how two indirect/high context/save facing teams work together. Have they learned to be more perceptive of others’ body language? Do they know what questions to ask? We agreed that it’s key to ask the right questions. If you’re someone who likes direct communication, don’t ask ‘Can you do this project?’ but instead ask ‘How will you do this project?’. Don’t ask ‘Will it be finished by X deadline?’ but ask ‘When will you finish the project?’.

Furthermore, as I mentioned before in my blog, be aware that your not working from a neutral perspective. Being direct does not equate ‘being right’. Having some cultural self awareness is a key skill for any global manager.This includes remembering the historical relations between the countries where your teams/business is located. For example is there a colonial history? Then be careful about being informal too soon, as a director for a UK company shared with me. When he said ‘come on boys, let’s get started’ to his Indian colleagues he was curtly informed that this familiarity was not appreciated. Having this kind of insight can be priceless for any organisation going global.

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