I’m deeply engrossed in Erin Meyer’s book “The Cultural Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business.” In this book, she takes her broad knowledge of different cultures on the world stage and how they differ from other to the practical task working in a global business with international teams.
She has eight chapters which cover various dimensions of how cultures can be compared to each other. In the first chapter, she discussed the Communication scale of cultural relativity, with high-context cultures which favor an indirect style of communication (like the Japanese) on the left-hand side of the scale, and low-context cultures which favor a more direct style of communication (like the Americans) on the right-hand side of the scale.
The second chapter which I am reading now discusses the Evaluating scale of cultural relativity, with cultures that like a more direct form of negative feedback on the left-hand side of the scale and cultures that prefer a more indirect form of negative feedback on the right-hand side of the scale.
If you cross the Communication and Evaluation scales together, you get a quadrant of four possibilities:
A Low-contact/Explicit and Direct Negative Feedback: Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Australia
B High-context/Implicit and Direct Negative Feedback: Israel, Russia, France, Spain, Italy
C High-context/Implicit and Indirect Negative Feedback: Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, India, Kenya, China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Japan
D Low-context explicit/ and Indirect Negative Feedback: US, Canada, UK
Take a look at the country I’m familiar with because I lived here: the US. Although Americans prefer a more direct style of communication than practically any other culture on the globe, when it comes to giving negative feedback, we’re somewhere in the middle. I was always told in my Toastmasters club that when I’m giving evaluations, always include words such as in my opinion, I think that, etc., before you state a negative opinion because that “softens the blow” for the listener who can say, “well, it’s his opinion, I can take it or leave it.” These kind of phrases are called downgraders and are opposed to the upgraders such as totally, or absolutely, which strenghen the negative opinion. We were told in Toastmasters to NEVER use these words, one because they are not accurate– “you’re always doing such and such in your speeches” implies 100% of the time, which is almost never true. Secondly, they are hurtful, because they are given in a tone which sounds imperious, as if Moses were coming down from the mountain and hurling his stone tablets he received from on high towards your feet.
So that is quadrant D. If you’re like me from quadrant D, how do you deal with the other three? (Hey, I just realized that rhymes …)
Quadrant A: These are the cultures that like to be explicit in their normal communications and DIRECT in their negative feedback. Although Americans get along with the Germans when it comes to explicit communications, in the realm of feedback we are more skittish about giving direct negative feedback, and couch it in language that softens the blow (as mentioned above). However, don’t try this at home, kids! Don’t try to imitate their frankness when it comes to negative feedback. Calling a German a “Schafkopf” (sheep-head) is unlikely to get you any invitations to the Bierstube any time soon. Accept their direct criticism with good grace, knowing that they are doing in with the best of intentions to make you grow professionally.
It takes some time getting used to this style if you are from a culture that prefers more indirect feedback. It’s why one of my favorite jokes from the Simpsons is when Troy McClure is hawking his new self-help book with a title that definitely would NOT sell well in the United States, but just might sell in Germany: “Ger Confident, Stupid!”
Quadrant B: These are the cultures which in normal communications make you read between the lines–EXCEPT when they are giving you negative feedback, when they are sharp and direct. Like with quadrant B, if you are from a culture that gives indirect negative feedback, don’t try imitating their directness because you will speak with a cultural “accent” if it is not something you are accustomed to doing in your culture. However, you might want to give the Quadrant B people on your team a couple of downgrder phrases which will supply the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
Quadrant C: The rest of the world sees the emphasis that the Americans use on positive feedback as a false front that they can see right through. Nobody can be that goddamned positive at 9 AM on a Monday morning! We are seen as cheerleaders. Don’t say everything is “amazing” or “excellent”, but rather save those kudos when something is REALLY out of the ordinary.
Erin recommends that when dealing with people from quadrant C that you are explicit and low-context with BOTH positive and negative feedback. This is something we learn in Toastmasters where, if you want to say something needs to be improved, you don’t say something like “the introduction was great, but the ending was weak!” Why? What the hell does “great” mean on an operational basis? Telling me my speech was “wonderful” doesn’t help me one damn bit when it comes to knowing specifically what I was doing that I should keep doing. Likewise, telling me that my speech was “boring” is worse than hurtful, it’s POINTLESS. What is boring for you maybe interesting to somebody else. What was it in the delivery of the message–my body language, my gestures, my vocal variety, etc.–that you as an evaluator thought did not resonate. And, more importantly, what would you suggest in its place as a “new-and-improved” version of the message? Telling me I’m stuck in the basement when you’re on the second floor is not feedback, because it doesn’t give me a clue how to get OUT of the basement.
And be balanced in your positive and negative feedback. Americans are tuned out in international teams because they try to be positive to an excessive degree, and Americans tune out those cultures that, when they perform to a 99% level, only tell them about what they didn’t like about the 1%. I once had an argument with my mother who came from a German cultural background, where direct criticism was more of the norm. I had done my chores, and upon inspection, she chose the ONE corner of the room I had missed, although the rest of the room was spotless. I told her it was demoralizing to do something 99% correctly, but only hear about the 1% I didn’t do to her standards. She actually thought about this, and then came back 10 seconds later with the comment, “yes, but it wasn’t 99%. It was more like 75%.” I heard my Dad’s laughter from the other room, because with his Irish cultural background, he heard loud and clear that from my standpoint, she was missing the point. With his cheerful mental frame of mind, I was sure that if I ever came back drunk and vomited in my room, I would have been severely chastised by my mother, but he would have managed somehow to put a positively spin on the situation by saying with a smile, “well, at least you missed the stairs on the way up!”
When encountering a person from a different quadrant whose style is different than your own, Erin says that you should have the conversation about the different communicating or evaluating style in terms of cultural differences, rather than differences between individuals.
Quadrant D: I lived in Japan which is almost on the other end of the Communicating scale of cultural relativity than the United States in being implicit and indirect in regular communications. In Japan, even more so than in China, negative feedback is given indirectly as well, whereas Americans are kind of middle-of-the-roaders on the Evaluating scale. Americans will give negative feedback in a group setting with downgraders or words that “soften the blow.” However, ANY such public feedback in Japan would cause the person receiving it to lose face.
I knew when I worked in Tokyo that if my boss wanted to have a private word with me, then I knew it was not going to be praise for my having done a good job, because THAT he would give, although normally not during business hours, but in the “after five” business meetings that took place in a Japanese izakaya or pub. The negative feedback was given in private meetings so I wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of my other co-workers.
So when dealing with people from quadrant D, do not give negative feedback to an individual in front of a group. Use food and drink to blur an important message–that is why the izakaya was an integral part of the business world because that is where people could venture to give feedback to each other in a setting where people were naturally more relaxed.
We want to be polite when talking to others but when we see a blind person heading towards a manhole cover, we need to speak more directly. Always let the person know you are giving them feedback because you care about them and their career–that will be a gesture that “softens the blow” no matter what quadrant you’re from!