A Cultural Map to Giving Feedback (1)

In her book The Culture Map:  Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, author Erin Meyer discusses 8 dimensions along which cultures can be compared to each other.

In the last post, I discussed the first chapter on high-context vs. low-context cultures.   In the second chapter, I will discussed the second chapter which deals with how negative feedback is given.

As a review of the first chapter, let me explain that “high-context” cultures are those in which communications are highly dependent on the cultural context, and those things which are mutually understood by members of that culture are implied by not directly stated, whereas in “low-context” cultures matters are stated more directly and explicitly in order to minimize the possibility of miscommunication.    The United States possesses such a culture, and if you look at how the culture of the United States was made up as an amalgam of cultures mostly from Europe, then you can see that a high-context style of communication wouldn’t have worked here, precisely because people came here from differing cultural contexts.   Erin Meyer refers to this first high-context (think of Japan) vs. low-context (think of the United States) as the Communicating scale of cultural relativity.

However, what happens when you want to give negative feedback?    Although we call it “constructive criticism,” the way in which this criticism is delivered can differ depending on the culture.    The scale here is the Evaluating scale of cultural relativity; some cultures like that of France prefer a more direct style whereas others like that of the United States prefer a more indirect style.   Direct cultures tend to use words called upgraders such as “absolutely” or “totally” that strengthen negative feedback, where indirect cultures use downgraders such as “kind of” or “maybe” that understate the criticism.

Globally speaking, it is the German, Russian, and Dutch who are on the direct side, with Americans in the middle, and most Asian countries being more indirect in their criticism.

To give you an example, I’m a member of a Toastmasters club and one of the “rules” I was taught about evaluating someone else’s speech is use words such as “in my opinion” or “I think that”.   I’m realizing now reading Erin Meyer’s chapters that these are downgrader words which “soften the blow” of telling them something they need to improve upon.   In the Windy City Professional Speaker’s Club, however, since you are getting criticism from people who are themselves professional speakers, their feedback tends to be more direct but also very precise (not “the ending was weak” was “here’s how you can make the ending stronger” followed by several examples).   If you are new to this kind of direct criticism, it is like moving from an indirect culture (regular Toastmasters clubs) to a direct culture (professional speaker’s club).   However, if you can get over the injury to your ego of having direct negative feedback, you realize that they are giving you the best professional advice they can with the goal in mind of helping you, too, to become a professional speaker.   At that point, you become very appreciate of it.   But it takes a cultural adjustment to be able to see it as ultimately a positive thing to experience.

Okay, so what should you do if you’re communicating with someone who is either more or less direct than your culture is when it comes to criticism?    I’ll take that up in the next post…


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