The exact same sentence from your boss can mean 'yes,' 'no,' or 'maybe' depending on the country where you work


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  • Learning how to communicate with people from other
    cultures is critical in international business.
  • Some cultures express negative feedback differently
    than others.
  • When a boss tells their employee “we can try” one of
    their ideas, it could mean three different things depending on
    which country they’re in.

Each culture has different styles of communicating that affect
how language is interpreted.

In the world of international business, it’s critical to know
your words will be understood by people from another country, or
it could spell disaster.

Craig Storti, director of Communicating Across Cultures,
gave an example of a sentence that has three different
implications depending on the nationality of the person saying
it: “We can try that.”

If an American boss said “we can try that” to one of their
employees’ proposals, it would be safe to assume the idea was
approved, albeit tepidly.

However, if the same sentence were uttered by a boss from Japan,
you’d know the proposal was dead in the water. Meanwhile, in
Germany, such a response would be a ringing endorsement of the
idea.

The reason for the three interpretations is how each culture
expresses negative feedback. In many Asian countries, such as
Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia, people generally
don’t verbalize their negative feedback. Instead, it’s assumed
that a lack of positive feedback constitutes an outright
rejection.

That’s pretty different from how most Americans operate.

“For Americans, it’s not enough to not say anything positive,”
Storti told Business Insider. “You have to say something negative
for your disapproval to be understood.”

Meanwhile, in many western European countries, including Germany,
Denmark, the Netherlands, France, and Spain, people are even more
direct than Americans. If an employee’s idea is terrible, their
boss will let them know without sugarcoating it, Storti said.

“To Germans and Dutch people, Americans actually come across as
beating around the bush. They’re too direct for us,” he said,
adding that Americans might view Europeans as “too honest.”

This cultural difference has major implications in the business
world, Storti said. Americans might feel like they’re being
misled by their Asian partners when they find their ideas weren’t
actually met with approval. And Europeans might believe Americans
aren’t being honest when they couple their criticism with
positive statements.

Learning the subtleties of a culture’s communication style can
make a world of difference.

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