When “Yes” means “No” or “Maybe”–Avoiding Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings in Global Business

Linda McGovern of CultureSmart offers advice & tips on how to avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings in global business.

An American businesswoman comes away from a meeting delighted; she finally got her Japanese supplier to agree to a price. A few days later, she receives questions about price. Its almost as if she imagined the meeting. “What’s going on here?” she asks. “We agreed on the price already, didn’t we?”

The businesswoman recalls all the Um-hmms and Yesses she heard in the meeting. “They agreed to the price, they said yes,” she mutters to herself. “They even nodded and smiled.”

Welcome to the world of intercultural business communication–a world fraught with frequent misunderstandings, frayed tempers and mistrust. This American Businesswoman is not the first or last to feel frustrated in this way. Other people have misunderstood a “yes” response.

Ways of Communication:
The businesswoman needs to understand that irrespective of language, different cultures communicate in different ways.

Good communication American style is to say what you mean precisely, in as straightforward a manner as possible. Be direct, get to the point, say what the bottom line is. For other cultures, this style is rude, abrasive and self-centered.

Many cultures–including Japanese, go to great lengths not to be direct. The risk of disharmony with other group members is too great to be outspoken. Its better to agree to somebodys face and negotiate with them afterwards than to blatantly disagree. In our opening scenario, the Japanese supplier appeared to say yes, but continued to negotiate a price, days after the supposed agreement.

Direct communicators like Americans in general, consider this indirectness deceptive, two-faced and lacking in integrity. What do you think?

Goals of Communication:
The goals of communication vary across culture and languages. In the US, speech is often used to demonstrate eloquence, power or lack thereof. The presidential debates are good examples of this. So too are the expressions “For the sake of argument” or “I’ll play the devils advocate and…”

But in many Asian cultures, the goals of communication is to achieve consensus of opinion and to promote group harmony. “Yes” can mean “no,” “maybe,” or even “we’ve got to think a little more about this and we don’t want to fall out with you.”

Styles of Communication:
So how do you know when yes really means no? Simply listen to the silent messages and read the invisible words.

US culture, with its long tradition of rhetoric, values verbal messages greatly. Other cultures are more sensitive to non-verbal means of communication, such as:

  • Body posture
  • Hand gestures
  • Facial expressions
  • Eye contact
  • How close people stand to each otherMisunderstandings and blunders result from failing to recognize and understand many forms of non-verbal communication. Going back to our opening scenario, the businesswoman remembers the nods and smiles. But what did they mean in the context of that business meeting?

    Not what the American businesswoman thought. They meant disagreement, displeasure, uncertainty. The lesson to be learnt here is that similar gestures and facial expressions are often used differently across cultures. The meaning of a smile is not universal. Neither is a frown.

    Avoid misunderstandings in communicating across cultures:

    1. Be conscious of body language and non-verbal messages:
    What message is communicated in the smiles, frowns, head movements or silence?

    2. Watch eye contact:
    Reserve judgment on the correct amount of eye-contact. Some cultures encourage plenty, others frown upon it. You may have to adjust the amount of eye contact according to the status of the person you’re talking to.

    3. Listen without interrupting:
    Americans are often considered too talkative. People from other cultures may interpret many interruptions as disrespectful.

    4. Summarize what you hear often:
    Keeping in mind point #3, clarify what you think you have heard, rephrasing as simply as possible.

    5. Speak slowly, enunciate and avoid idioms:

    Only 5% of the worlds population speak English as a first language. You may be doing business with a person who speaks fluent English but who has difficulty understanding your accent, the idioms, jargon or slang you use. Remember, the simpler the English, the better.

    In the next newsletter, well look at how to develop international English for marketing and other business endeavors. In the meantime, success in your intercultural business interactions!

    Copyright 1998, Linda McGovern Linda McGovern and her company, CultureSmart, provide cross-cultural and international business consulting and training services such as pre-departure briefings, orientations to working and living in the US and business and technical English instruction programs. Business Success Across Cultures. Tel/Fax: +1-510-471-6607 e-mail:CultureSmart@mncmc.com