The exact same phrase can have a completely different meaning in different countries - and misunderstanding it can make everything more complicated
- 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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