Sounds of Silence–5 thoughts on cross-cultural listening

A friend called me the other day to ask if I do coaching for communication. One of his younger staff had difficulty impacting with clients, and he wanted to know if I could help.

I asked whether it was her lack of English fluency or knowing what to say but instead getting tongue-tied and flustered. He quickly replied ‘the latter’, explaining that most of their clients are European or American. In meetings, she often says very little, and he has recently received some polite jabs from them about her quiescence.

For all the talk of the global MNC (and let’s direct it towards western ones for the sake of the blog) there is still a yawning cross-cultural gap when it comes to communication.

And if you Google “Please Say That Again”, the first things that pop up are not hard of hearing requests, but translations!

Here are some thoughts for the less thoughtful when it comes to cross-cultural talk in Asia:

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  • It’s often acceptable to say less, and make each word count. Americans are notorious for filling the silence, not always the answer to a conversational lull. Pico Iyer, in a recent book review of Natsume Soseki in the NYR, wrote: “There are few emphases in spoken Japanese–the aim is to remain as level, even as neutral..and to present a surface that gives little away..It’s what’s not expressed that sits at the heart of a haiku.” Although Japan is not Asia in toto, Iyer reflects how life truly is in the details, and how to make a point with less rather than more. The verbally adroit bank-shot..
  • Slow down. I cannot tell you (and many reading this already know) how quickly native English speakers can talk. Even for non-native speakers whose written English is perfect, listening and speaking are not the same as talking. That doesn’t mean dumbing down or parental patter to a toddler. Just go from 45 to 33 1/3 (I’m dating myself, I suppose). And scale back on the slang. I’ve seen that most recently with comments on the name of Li Keqiang, China’s new prime minister. It’s humurous for about, oh, 30 seconds..And before that it was Wen and Hu. Yuk yuk, and yuck.
  • Don’t get blinkered by foreigners who DO speak outstanding English. I have had many a client say to me “I love this candidate, they speak such fluent English, let’s hire ’em now.” Fluency, or a western accent is certainly helpful, but doth not equate with having the right strategic thinking or being a fit into the corporate culture; others whose spoken English is not as fluent may well be better for the role. Similis simili gaudet..
  • Do not put people on the spot to ask their opinion. We are not ‘in the pit with Jack’ anymore, but more likely trying to build bridges in various parts of the world. There is a time and place to solicit opinions, but shining a kleig light to force a reply will result in a flaccid and irked response–a loss of face not easily repaired.
  • Hesitancy is not necessarily a detriment. I recently spoke to a (western) client who wants one of the (Asian) staff to be less hesitant, to be ‘less loved and more feared.’ As a quieter consensus builder, the Asian may struggle trying to accommodate the cultural norms of the company or boss.
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    As the chart at the top shows, there are many paths to the end–having both a communicative repertoire and a modicum of circumspection is a good start.


    Written by Neal Horwitz, MD of Henry Hale Maguire


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