If nobody has told you yet, Westerners tend to be bad listeners. We complain when someone is just ‘telling us what we want to hear’, but we don’t realize that we might be causing the problem in the first place.
Take an example adapted from Craig Storti’s classic, Cross-Cultural Dialogues:
Leonard: Ramya, how are things going?
Ramya: They are going fine. We have a lot of good work coming up.
Leonard: Great to hear. Listen, we need to roll out this new product by next Friday. Will that be ok?
Ramya: I think so, sir. We have two extra accounts that have developed recently.
Leonard: Ok great, this product is really high priority and we have to have it, ok?
Ramya: Ok, we will surely do our best to do it.
Leonard: Wonderful, that’s great. Thanks a lot, Ramya.
As we saw in the earlier post about order of communication, Leonard is looking for a quick answer to his question, “Will that be ok?” The first thing he hears is “I think so”, which translates for him as “Yes”. Therefore, he stops listening and the rest of the conversation is meaningless to him.
If you are doing business in Asia, you must learn not only how to speak indirectly, but also how to listen indirectly. OD consultant Allon Shevat writes extensively on this and his blog is incredibly useful and occasionally startling for cross-cultural managers.
Here are three ways you listen better in indirect cultures:
Listen to what is said
Anytime someone uses the words ‘could’ or ‘may’, your indirect ears should perk up. These are classic ways to suggest something is going on under the surface. When your colleague says, “It could work” in response to your idea, there is a good chance he has some major misgivings.
At Indian weddings while the food is being served, it isn’t uncommon for an uncle to get the server’s attention and ask for a sweet for the person sitting next to him. This isn’t just being polite; he wants one too. This can happen in the office too. If someone requests you pay more attention to a colleague, it may be a sign that they also feel neglected.
Many times, the longer the answer, the more likely it is a negative response. This isn’t a hard and fast rule as some people are just very verbose or nervous, but one common way to give a negative answer is to talk a lot.
Similarly, if the answer starts with ‘Yes’, but has a lot of conditions added on to it (…we’ll see, …if we get the specs on time, …we’ll try), then it is much weaker than you likely perceive it to be.
Listen to what is not said
Sometimes hearing what is not said is just as important as hearing what is actually said.
If you are listening all the way until the end of a response, and you still feel like they haven’t answered your question well, or they’ve given an evasive answer that has nothing to do with what you asked – “That is the answer”, as Allon says. You can clarify the response, but there is no need to push for a more direct answer.
Hesitation or delayed responses are other ways people suggest that there is something more to the picture you aren’t seeing.
Another technique you should be able to spot is when they turn the question back on you. If you ask for their input on a new design and their first comment is “What do you think?”, they are testing the waters; potentially because they have something negative to say and aren’t sure how you will respond to it.
Finally, silence is often overlooked by Westerners as a communication tool. We think “If they disagree, they will say something.” But they are often thinking, “I don’t agree, so I won’t say anything.” The desire to remain quiet might be to avoid contradicting you in public. In emails and texts, Indians are less indirect than other cultures, but a silent response is a clear sign that something is going on.
Listen to the body
Smiles are not always a sign of happiness. They can also be used as a distraction to hope that you don’t ask more about a certain subject.
If you work with younger Indians, you might find them giggling when confronted with something. They may use this when they are quite afraid of something.
The Indian head wobble is perhaps the most famous. It can mean a variety of things, but the best translation is the soft ‘grunt’ or ‘Hmm’ that Americans will do when they are following along in a conversation. It means “Keep going; I’m following you.” It is not a sign of agreement necessarily, but of tracking.
Remember, only an artist can speak indirectly, and that includes listening too. There is a learning curve to training your ear to pick up on indirect communication. You will find your own patterns and signals. But as a cross-cultural manager who cares about good communication, it’s a skill you need to build.
Photo Credit: Scott Dexter via Flickr