Learning the language of indirectness

By Andy Molinsky and Melissa Hahn via hbr.org   Article

“Imagine the following situation: It’s March 15th, and Mark, an American manager, is arranging a date for the installation of a powerful new computing system for a Japanese company. With the help of his colleagues, Mark has set a date at the end of the month, and communicates the date to his Japanese counterparts. Mark immediately receives a note back from the Japanese company thanking him profusely for selecting the date and mentioning how eager they are to get the installation in place. Pleased, Mark saves the email and moves on to the next item on his agenda. The next day, however, Mark is completely surprised to receive a frantic call from his boss about how upset the Japanese company is about the installation date and how they need to get the installation completed more quickly to avoid losing the client entirely.

One of the greatest — and subtlest — challenges in global business is managing differences in communication style. In the United States, for example, we typically value directness. We admire straight shooters, tell people to ‘stop beating around the bus’” or ‘get to the point,’ and don’t expect to read between the lines. As a general rule, it’s up to the speaker to be clear and to convey all of the information that is needed in a succinct, digestible form. Those who stray from this template by meandering or providing excessive background and tangential details are perceived as unorganized or unprepared; those who reply with subtle hints and references may be viewed as sneaky or obtuse.

We are so accustomed to this style that it can be both surprising and confusing when others deviate from it. Yet, that is exactly what happens when working with people from other less direct cultures such as in the example above. Japanese people, for example, are very careful with the way that they communicate, especially when it comes to information that could be potentially ‘face threatening.’ As a result, people will often express things in far more indirect terms than someone in the United States or other direct cultures such as Germany or Switzerland would be accustomed to. This is especially the case in a group setting, with people one does not know particularly well, and with people who are senior or in more powerful positions. The ability to read between the lines and communicate information that is subtle but still gets the message across is a highly prized characteristic in Japanese culture.

This, of course, creates a challenge for managers who are leading or participating on international teams with people from less direct cultures such as Japan, China, or Korea. When topics are discussed and decisions are made in a dialogue that spans styles and may take place virtually, how can they engage effectively?”

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