Selling and servicing across cultures is more common now than it has
ever been. And as more and more of us come across international sales
opportunities I thought it would be worth while looking at some of the
challenges we may come across when trying to communicate effectively
cross culturally in sales or other business areas.
In many of the articles I have written I advocate for open, honest,
trust based relationships. And I still do, however being a direct,
no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is person that is what I value most.
Therefore, by contrast, I can often find indirect, seemingly
non-committal, indecisive communication a real chore. ‘Just get to the
point’ I hear myself say. Or ‘are you just saying “yes” to just be nice
or do you really want to go ahead?” Aaggh.
I don’t think I am alone, however, in recent times I have really had
to take a look at Direct vs. Indirect communication styles as we are
quoting for some sales and service training in Asia. I have trained in
Asia before, but I really need to be much more aware about the
potential communication divide and the value different cultures place
on Direct versus Indirect communication. Especially when I am putting
relevant sales and service programs which are all based around
For instance a well known company have located a main part of their
internal services off shore. The people in this offshore team need to
answer queries, solve problems and pro-actively deal with their
Australian counterparts. While the technical aspects of the job are
easy to train, the issue lies in how to equip these people with Direct
Communication styles that suit their Australian audience. Some of us
have seen Asian call centre staff being trained in the Australian
vernacular i.e. G’day mate, etc. However it is so much more than that.
Tackling this issue is not easy especially given the cultural /
communication divide. Understanding the core competencies and specific
behaviours needed in the offshore team at each level is critical to
gaining clarity and providing evidence as to the standards of work
performance expected in each role would make a good start.
Understanding the business and personal values shared by the people, in
each country team, is also critical. These shared values can provide a
link and bridge to connect with each other. Building a further bridge
between different communications styles and cultural morays is the
This issue is one of the communication dichotomies which can cause
problems between Asian and Western co-workers. Each of these styles has
its own intrinsic, often unspoken, rules. When a person used to
communicating under one set of rules is thrust into a situation where
another set of rules is being used, it ultimately leads to frustration.
Frustration is what the company I referred to before is
experiencing. You can try cultural training but unless it is backuped
by direct behavioural interventions, shared values, links between
direct and indirect communication and ongoing support then nothing will
I am no expert in this area, but if I am going in to train a team
that uses Indirect Communication in their daily life and culture in
Direct Communication approaches and techniques that are part of another
country I had better sort it out fast. Here is some information I found
as part of my ongoing study in this area. A great article I found
really expressed some of the issues and options very well:
SOM@Work > Blog Archive > How to Communication with Your...
Some cultures, such as in the Australia, U.S., Germany
and the U.K. generally value a direct style of communication. They like
to “get down to business,” “cut to the chase,” and “get to the point.”
They do not feel offended or shamed by the kind of direct statements
that might be considered offensive in indirect cultures such as in
Asia. In fact, when things are not stated directly, people from direct
cultures (such as Australian co-workers) can become confused and
frustrated, and might not understand the message at all. They are used
to communicating with people whose mantras are “say what you mean, and
mean what you say” and “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’”
In these cultures, being direct is how people show respect.
In cultures that use an indirect communication style, such as India,
China, Japan, and other Asian cultures, it is very common to encounter
situations where people communicate in a way that would not cause
someone to lose face. Thus, communication happens indirectly. Messages
are subtly implied rather than explicitly stated, and people are
accustomed to reading between the lines for the message. Words such as
“perhaps” and “maybe” are often code for “no,” since saying “no” could
risk shaming someone. In these cultures, being indirect is how people
Those from indirect cultures think of their own style as polite and
face-saving, and sometimes see direct communication as rude, blunt and
overly aggressive. Those from direct cultures think of their style as
open and honest, and sometimes think of indirect communication as
“beating around the bush” and a sign that the communicator is trying to
be difficult, shifty, or maddeningly vague.
Akio Morita (co-founder of SONY) once said that when Westerners “ask
questions or express an opinion, they want to know right away whether
the other party agrees or opposes them. So in English, ‘yes’ or ‘no’
comes first. We Japanese prefer to save the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for last.
Particularly when the answer is ‘no,’ we put off saying that as long as
possible, and they find that exasperating.”
Each of us intrinsically feels that our style is the “right” style,
and the other is the “wrong” style – but in the end, it’s not a matter
of right or wrong, but of getting on the same wavelength.
The author of the article suggests the keys to effective cross-cultural communication are to:
- try to understand the rules by which people are playing
- play by their cultural rules as much as possible when we communicate with them,
- give them grace when they have trouble understanding and playing by the rules of our culture.