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Friday, June 17, 2011

Part 3 of Cross-cultural communication conundra


A few years ago, I met a director-level gentleman whom I consider to be quite maverick and not too politically correct, from what I'll call "Geography A". He was known for his habit of opening meetings by saying the following, where I've omitted the nationalities:
[Geography A], speak up. [Geography B]. shut up and listen up.
Although I can't really feel comfortable saying this myself, I did understand his viewpoint. Behaviourally speaking, I have found that one's experience in school influences how one conduct him/herself in the workplace. Personally, I am mainly a product of the Canadian education system, which akin to the American, emphasized in-class participation ("speaking up" in discussions). However, I also have exposure to the Japanese schooling mindset albeit in a distorted fashion: there, as in what my past colleagues (as well as spouse) describe as the Irish system, classrooms remained predominantly silent except for the teacher's voice. In Japan, my understanding also is that when students do speak up, they do so via structured activities such as when asked to read from texts, answer questions (where the teacher selects the respondent with or without raised hands). Rote memorization of facts and formulae are demonstrated mainly via tests and written work.

Given such differences experienced during one's formative years, it actually makes sense that we would continue to act in ways that used to be rewarded behaviour. This leads to some anecdotal observations I have compiled over the years:
  • Silent participants cannot be assumed to fully understand or accept the flow of discussion. They may choose to raise objections or ask questions "offline".
  • Silent participants also do not necessarily feel unenthused or disinterested in the discussions, and may have quite useful insights to offer, but not during the "thick" (middle) of proceedings.
  • People who show a preference to be heard, do not always have valuable contributions to make but rather may believe that recognition of their worth hinges on "getting airtime" (taking opportunities to speak as often as possible).
  • Vocal people may believe they're taking control over the flow of discussion, but if their audience falls under the "comfortable in silence" category and their signal to noise ratio is low, chances are they're gradually sabotaging their professional image, and deluding themselves in the process.
The early conclusion I'd drawn from various experiences working in global teams, thus, was that in any form of communication, verbal or written, the cardinal rule (as mentioned in an earlier comment) is to "know thy audience".

About Mayo

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Professional: As "Senior Enterprise SEO Strategist" in IBM's Digital Marketing division, I provide consulting and training services for both internal and external clients. Formerly I was involved in Natural Language Processing, software localization, quality assurance and documentation authoring.
Personal: INTJ Nikkei Nisei ex-patriated Canadian who takes photographs and enjoys Baroque through late Classical music. The G+ page shares some of the "best of" photos.