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 bush” 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?
One critical piece of advice is to remember that when you’re communicating with someone from a less direct culture, you can’t take everything you hear at face value. In the example above, the Japanese company said they were “eager” to get the installation in place. To an American ear, that might mean that they’re looking forward to the appointed date at the end of the month. To a Japanese-trained ear, however, that statement of eagerness means that they are quite anxious to start as soon as possible and ideally would like the date to be moved up. Of course, due to cultural norms about the indirectness of communication, they can’t necessarily come out and say this as directly as an American would expect.
A second tip is to always be on the lookout for the difference between the actual message you hear and the “meta-message.” In other words, what are the many ways to interpret this message? In this case, the Japanese manager could mean that they are happy with the selected date and will proceed as suggested. Or it could mean that they’d like the installation to take place a little earlier, maybe by a few days or a week. Alternatively, it could mean that the Japanese company is incredibly anxious to get the installation done imminently, with no time to waste. As someone from a direct culture, you don’t necessarily know the actual degree of urgency, and so that’s where a third tip comes into play: the use of probes.
It’s critical to send out probes — or additional communication that enables you to hopefully gather more information about the true meaning and intent of their communication. For example, in the case above, an American manager could write back, thank them for their message, and confirm that the date works on their end, asking if they would prefer a different date. Now, if this were two direct cultures communicating, the answer might be a big, “Yes, an earlier date would be great,” perhaps in all caps or with an exclamation point. But in Japan, the message again would likely be a bit subtler, something like, “Of course, we don’t want to inconvenience you, but if possible, that would be helpful to us.” Then, as a manager from a direct culture, you’d need to again filter that through your understanding of indirectness — that by stating that it could be helpful to them, the company is being quite clear (in their own way) that they’d like a quicker installation.
Learning the new language of indirectness isn’t all that different from learning another language, like English, French, or Japanese. It takes time, practice, and patience. And, yes, you may make a mistake or two. But the quicker you can master this language — in all its subtleties — the better equipped you’ll be to do business in all arenas of the global stage.
This post was jointly written about Melissa Hahn and Andy Molinsky
Melissa Hahn helps people navigate cultural differences in relocation, education, and family life. She is the author of the intercultural children’s book Luminarias Light the Way (2014). Follow her on Twitter @SonoranHanbok.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.
The post originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.