British people are notorious for understatement. In one Korean War encounter, many British soldiers died unnecessarily when their CO’s description of the situation as “a bit sticky” failed to communicate to their US allies the seriousness of their problems.
This behaviour is an example of ‘downgrading’, a tendency to soften the impact of communications. Other world cultures tend towards the reverse – they use language that reinforces the seriousness of what they are saying. When ‘upgraders’ and ‘downgraders’ meet, their tendency to over-or understate their communications can lead to difficulties and misunderstandings.
That’s particularly problematic when it’s necessary to give feedback; something that’s often unavoidable in international workplaces. A person’s cultural background may lead them to magnify or minimise the impact of communications aimed at them.
This can result in misunderstandings, in hurt feelings, and missed opportunities for deals when parties fail to communicate their intentions effectively.
Openly criticise a Russian counterpart’s proposal, and your negotiations can proceed at a deeper level. But express your disagreement in a meeting with a Japanese contact and you may scupper the deal entirely. Feedback may need to be veiled in some way to be delivered to a culture that favours downgrading more than your own.
For managers working with diverse teams, it can be problematic knowing how to give feedback that will be received in the way it was intended. If a British manager describes a piece of work as “not too bad”, this could easily be misunderstood as being poorly received when in actual fact it is being complimented.
It can be very hard to understand the culturally determined behaviour preferences of people from a different background, even if you’re both speaking the same language.
Although some cultures may value emotional openness more than the British culture, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is acceptable to openly express disagreement or make negative comments about a person’s work.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is that in some cultures, criticism is seen as criticism of the issue rather than the person. In others, open disagreement is seen as criticism of the individual and likely to hurt feelings.
Confrontation is considered particularly shocking in some cultures and needs to be avoided in the workplace at all costs. That’s the case particularly in Japan and the Philippines, where open confrontation and expression of heated emotion would be seen as fairly disastrous.
But emotive confrontation would be seen as part of a healthy debate in a Russian or Spanish workplace. In a German office, the same confrontation would be welcome but less emotion would be expressed or it would be seen as unprofessional.
British natives tend to use downgrading and indirectness far more than many of their key partner countries, even those that speak the same language.
British culture favours downgrading far more than most European ones, and certainly more than America. This can lead to Brits feeling mildly shocked at the directness of contacts from other cultural backgrounds, and it can also impact on their ability to communicate effectively with them.
You can tell if you’re communicating with a downgrader because they’ll use words such as “maybe”, or “perhaps a little bit” to soften the impact of what they are saying. Japanese, Mexicans and Ghanaians tend to use these terms to soften the impact of any negative feedback they have to deliver.
As a result, they may find it difficult to express the strength of their opposition to someone from a less downgrading cultural background.
If you’re dealing with an upgrader, they will tend to reinforce their points using words such as “absolutely” or “completely”. Russians, Israelis and the Dutch all tend to do this, particularly when expressing disagreement. A Brit having a conversation with a disgruntled Russian might be made to feel uncomfortable with this level of directness.
Whether you’re from an upgrading or downgrading cultural background, the onus is on you to listen properly to your counterparts with a sensitive ear. If your Japanese business contact raises a point that he says is of slight importance to your arrangements, it’s worth paying attention as it may be significant.
However if your Russian contact mentions a slight problem, it’s much more likely to genuinely be a minor one. It’s hard to adjust your listening dial according to the culture you’re dealing with.
People from upgrading cultures may find it very hard to descend from their culturally-defined position. Ask a German team member to soften their approach to giving feedback, and they’ll find it infuriating.
It’s hard to introduce vagueness into your approach if you’re used to taking a more direct route, and upgraders may find themselves performing what they consider is an absurd conversational dance to deliver their message.
It’s difficult to sustain a position where you operate outside your cultural comfort zone for an extended period. That’s why it’s difficult for individuals to adapt their cultural preferences when working in a team at the opposite end of the upgrader/downgrader spectrum from their own.
One way to help overcome the difference is to communicate key points in writing, perhaps in addition to face-to-face encounters. This can make it easier for downgraders to reiterate their points so that they are received as intended, and it can make it easier for upgraders to work on softening messages.
The fact remains that effective communication remains an ongoing challenge in international workplaces. Companies that surmount these issues do so by communicating about how they communicate, listening to the needs of all their employees, and by understanding the different cultural positions within the team.
It’s not a problem that can be solved easily, but awareness and understanding are the best approaches to take.