Culture and Communication

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

effective communication.

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

show respect.

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.


'Selling is everybody's business and everybody lives by selling something' so says Sue Barrett, sales expert, writer, business speaker and adviser, facilitator, sales coach, training provider and entrepreneur. Sue founded Barrett in 1995 to positively transform the culture, capability and continuous learning of leaders, teams and businesses by developing sales driven organisations that are equipped for the 21st Century. Since inception, Barrett has worked with hundreds of Australian companies c...

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