We’ve all been guilting of falling prey to common misconceptions about culture. Misconceptions that can make or break business interactions.
In the world of networking and business, stereotypes are detrimental. Especially when they’re false.
Which is why it’s so important that you squeeze the misconceptions listed below out of your head ASAP.
Keep in mind that the misconceptions addressed in this article are:
- for people from other countries. Not for people of these ethnic backgrounds who were born in or raised in your country.
- largely misconceptions in America
Understand that the alternatives to these misconceptions are not always true (but normally are)!
Culture is a very sensitive topic so please don’t take offense to anything discussed below. Thanks in advance!
Stereotypes you need to ditch like… yesterday
Cultural Misconception #1: Asian counterparts are shy and reserved (It’s just their nature, right?)
Asians are sometimes stereotyped as silent, withdrawn, or shy by Westerners.
If you lead a multinational team that comprises both Asians and Westerners, you’ve probably encountered the usual Western criticism that Asian team members don’t speak up and aren’t as forthright in giving their individual views in team meetings.
When giving a presentation (or even engaged in an enthusiastic discussion), you may be irritated by an Asian counterpart’s seeming lack of engagement.
This cultural stereotype, however, did not accurately represent Mr. Chen’s motivation in The Culture Map by Erin Meyers– as it doesn’t for most Asians.
However, Meyer’s next step when she encountered a scenario of “Asian reservedness” was one that most of us Westerners skip. Politely asking your counterpart why he or she didn’t speak up.
When Mrs. Meyers asked Chen why he didn’t speak up during their lengthy co-presentation, he responded “Were you expecting me to jump in?” This was asked with a genuine look of surprise on his face.
He then proceeded to explain the case as he saw it. “Erin is the chairman of the meeting in this room… I wait for her to call on me since she is the senior individual in the building. While I’m waiting, I can demonstrate that I’m a decent listener by holding my voice and body silent.”
An Asian colleague’s quietness is completely justified when you take note of just how much Americans talk
Chen went on to comment on the fact that in China, they sometimes get the impression that Westerners talk up too much in meetings to show off, or that we are bad listeners.
Mr. Chen noted that Chinese people pause for a couple seconds longer before speaking than Westerners.
In a gathering, we “Westerners basically talk over each other.”
I kept expecting Erin to be silent long enough for me to join in, but it never happened.
Chen shared that Chinese people also believe Americans don’t listen well in favor of constantly interrupting one another to make their arguments. (Which let’s be real, we sometimes do.)
If an acceptable duration of delay had occurred, he would have loved to make one of his arguments. “But Erin was constantly chatting, so [he] just sat and waited.”
Last but not least, Chen shared a Chinese proverb his mother had raised him on:
You have two eyes, two ears, but only one mouth. You should use them accordingly.
What does this mean for you as a businesswoman, businessman, or small business owner?
When giving presentations with an Asian counterpart, or engaged in a team meeting, invite them to speak up. No, not with your eyes or by angling your head in their direction.
Actually voice your invitation out loud. And if they don’t speak immediately, wait a few seconds before carrying on.
If you’re in a leadership position, you may even implement a hand-raising method of some sort. (Preferably at the start of meetings so that half-way through, co-workers don’t get irritated by their “Asian teammate who never has anything to contribute”.)
I’ll be real with you. I wasn’t aware of this culture misconception until I read The Culture Map. But turns out it’s a very real thing.
The French are thought to be masters of implied and indirect contact, communicating and listening with delicacy and sensitivity, while Americans are thought to prefer overt and straightforward communication.
In other words, we believe that frank is good, and subtle is useless. Which is basically the direct opposite to the French.
However, in Erin Meyers’ tale “Deaf Dulac,”, an American administrator complains that his French assistant lacked the intellect to understand his underlying message, whereas the French employee is blissfully unaware of her boss’s discontent.
Turns out this kind of situation is a lot more common than you’d think.
If you interview fifty French employees and ask them one by one how their American employers give them negative reviews, almost all of them will respond with vague, contradictory, or confusingly deceptive.
This trend is perplexing since Americans are almost always more straightforward and transparent than the French.
The exception to the norm
The one glaring exception is when supervisors provide input to their employees. Positive feedback is normally provided indirectly in a French company, whereas negative feedback is given more explicitly.
In the U.S., positive input is normally delivered explicitly from American administrators, who aim to package negative comments in positive, motivating words.
When admins utilize the traditional American formula of three positives for any negative, French subordinates are likely to leave a meeting with encouragement ringing loudly in their ears, while the negative comments seemed insignificant.
If Dulac had been mindful of this cultural tendency while reviewing her work results with her new American employer, she may have emphasized the bad aspects of the assessment more than she might have if it had come from a French boss, allowing her to interpret the reviews more correctly and maybe save her job.
What do this mean for you as a business owner?
If you’re in a position of leadership over an employee from France, be sure to reframe your communication during performance assessments. Start with telling them that you always begin with a few positive aspects before going into areas for improvement. Make sure they understand this and then go on with the assessment.
Simply telling them this beforehand will make sure that they pay attention during the assessment’s more critical, and important, points.
Cultural Misconception #3: Indian counterparts are disinterested in what it is that you have to say
When you live, serve, or move about regularly in regions abroad, you pick up a lot of contextual clues that help you decipher interactions and adjust accordingly.
When you interchange e-mails with a foreign counterpart in a region you haven’t visited, it’s far easier to overlook cultural nuances that affect interactions.
A basic example is the half-shake, half-nod of the head, which is a characteristic Indian behaviour. When doing business in India, you’ll quickly discover that the half-shake, half-nod isn’t a symbol of conflict, misunderstanding, or lack of encouragement like it is in most other societies. Instead, it connotes curiosity, zeal, or even, polite listening.
After a few hours there in person, you’d see that every native does this. Then logically, you’d make a mental note of what it seems to convey, and you’d read the gesture correctly while discussing a negotiation with your Indian outsourcing team.
However, when communicating with your Indian counterparts via e-mail or telephone from your home office across the world, you never see the setting in which they live and function.
Which means you fail to ever recognize the true meaning of their subtle head gestures.
When you’re on a videoconference with a major Indian executive, you may misinterpret his half-shake, half-nod as a sign that he’s not completely sold on your concept.
You try harder to persuade him, but the more you speak, the more he (apparently) shows his disapproval with his head. You hang up confused, irritated, and possibly furious.
So what does this mean for you as a small business owner, businesswoman, or businessman?
Simple. You recognize that there are cultural cues at work here and you embrace the half-nods and half-shakes. Next.
Misconception #4: Nuanced (layered) communicators aren’t trustworthy
Most of us have been in a “sales-y” situation before where the seller went on and on about the product, using numerous attractive adjectives, and seeming to “beat around the bush” before addressing cons (or possibly, a higher-than-expected sale price.)
This kind of behavior has led many westerners to distrust long sentences. Short is transparent. Long is elusive.
However, nuanced speech isn’t a bad thing (and can be indicative of the speaker’s respect for your intellect!)
Some cultures rely on straight-to-the-point communication, while others rely on layered communication.
The chart below shows which countries as a whole lean on straight-to-the-point communication (low-context) versus layered communication (high-context).
Major takeaways from that graph include:
- Western countries (and Australia) don’t value eloquent speech filled with unnecessary “frilly” words
- Precise communication is favored
- Eastern countries and African countries consider “good communication” to be sophisticated and layered
- Messages aren’t clearly stated, but implied
- Central American countries, Spain, and Italy fall more in the middle but lean towards an appreciation of nuanced speech
If you come from a low-context country, a high-context communicator can seem discreet, cryptic, or incapable of communicating effectively.
If you come from a high-context society, you might see a low-context communicator as overstating the obvious or as demeaning and flippant. Your low-context counterparts may even feel that you speak to them like children.
This misconception was written for someone from a low-context culture, but if you’re from a high-context culture: flip it.
Low-context communicators shouldn’t distrust layered speech.
And high-context communicators shouldn’t regard short sentences as condescending.
What does this mean for you as a small business owner, businesswoman, or businessman?
Be mindful of your communication with international partners. Consider using nuanced speech so that your eastern or southern connections don’t feel that they’ve been demeaned.
If you’re marketing to a high-context culture, consider elongating your descriptions and/or presentations.
On the other hand, consider communicating more precisely if you’re from a high-context society. Pin-pointing the more important details can go a long way in connecting with a Western audience.
Misconception #5: A joke wasn’t told if not followed by a smile, laugh, or “just kidding!”
This misconception is specifically for Americans and Brits.
On the Communicating scale, both Americans and Britons are at the low-context end.
However, the British have a greater tendency to talk between the lines compared with Americans, which is particularly noticeable in British humor.
Many British people like telling funny or humorous stories with a deadpan expression. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t get this kind of humor; they might think a Brit is kidding, but they risk showing their teeth just in case he isn’t.
Consequently, the British sometimes say that Americans “don’t get sarcasm.”
A better interpretation is that Americans are actually more low-context than their British counterparts.
When an American tells a joke, particularly in a professional environment, they are more apt to explicitly state, “This is a joke,” which is completely unnecessary when a British individual is referring to a fellow Brit.
What does this mean for you as a small business owner, businesswoman, or businessman?
Simply, to not be afraid to laugh when speaking with a British colleague. But to also recognize that your humor could be lost on foreign counterparts. In professional settings with international listeners, pick your jokes very wisely.
Even researching beforehand, despite how “uncool” that may seem. Jokes are great at lightening the mood during any social situation, so there’s no shame in having a few Google-searched ones on hand.
So what did we learn today?
- Most Asians aren’t naturally silent or reluctant to share their opinions in team settings
- American negative feedback is a whole lot less direct than French negative feedback (and probably numerous European countries). You should reframe personal assessments so that an employee doesn’t think their areas for improvement are “minor details.”
- Indian business partners aren’t disinterested when they half-nod or half-shake their heads. Contrary to western culture, these body gestures convey interest.
- Nuanced (layered) speech is totally trustworthy… at least when spoken by someone in Asia, Central America, France, or Spain. These “high-context” societies naturally use more words than Americans and most Westerners.
- Americans aren’t the kings of irony. Just kidding. But Americans are quite poor at detecting British sarcasm. The big lesson here is to be mindful of the jokes you make around international connections.
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Have you personally discovered any cultural misconceptions / stereotypes to be false?