Imagine sitting in on a teleconference with Jennifer who is questioning two of her sales managers on their lower-than-expected sales quarters. She asks them both to explain.
First is Dharmesh in India:
Second is Philipp who looks after the northern Europe region:
Do you find yourself starting to get annoyed at Dharmesh’s answer? Does it feel like he’s ‘beating around the bush’? Giving excuses?
What about Philipp? Is it easier to sympathize and accept his reasons?
That is the case for most western listeners. Yet, if you listen back to what they actually said, they both gave essentially the same answer, with one very important difference. This is a great example of different cross-cultural communication styles.
Speech Class 101
When someone is asked to give an answer to a specific question, they will typically give both the context of the answer as well as the answer itself.
If you grew up in a western-style education, you were taught to put the answer first. Your speech class teacher told you to give your main point and then follow-up with three supporting reasons. Your English teacher forced you to put your thesis statement first and then give reasons. Main point, reason. We do it this way because we think we communicate much more clearly when we give a roadmap for the listener/reader.
This is called deductive communication. Answer first, context second.
In India, the context usually comes before the answer. They want to set the scene first. They tell you all the things that might affect the answer. They may not know where they are going when they start answering. Processing happens on the fly. If they find an answer or main point, it usually comes at the end. It will sound more like the moral of the story from Aesop’s Fables.
Answering a question involves putting out all the information, and then making a summary statement at the end.
This is called inductive communication.
Another image to think about is a jalebi. A jalebi is an Indian sweet that is made in a similar fashion to a funnel-cake (US), Strauben (Germany), or Tippaleipä (Finland). You make it by putting the liquid batter into a funnel and drip it into hot oil, letting it go around and around. You stop when it looks right. There is no exact starting or ending point.
Why you are getting annoyed
If your brain has been conditioned to listen to deductive communication, you probably get frustrated with inductive speakers because you feel like they never get to the point.
When you ask a direct question to someone and they start setting the context, we interpret that as making excuses. It makes it sound like they are trying to weasel out of giving you a straight answer. Those kind of people can’t be trusted.
However, when someone puts the answer first and then gives the context, we call those reasons. That’s why we accept Philipp’s answer, but not Dharmesh’s, although their ‘reasons’ are very similar.
If you grew up as a deductive communicator, you typically:
…have a short attention span. You listen for the first thing they say that sounds like an answer and then tune the other person out.
…think the other person is rambling or giving excuses and lose respect for them.
How to Communicate Across Styles
If you come from a deductive background and you are interacting with storytellers, you run the risk of forming a bad opinion of someone simply because of the order of their communication. If you call yourself a competent cross-cultural manager, you should be well-versed in multiple styles of communication and not assume someone is incompetent just because they don’t follow your style.
How to listen well to an inductive communicator:
Listen until the very end. Even though you are tempted to tune out after the first phrase, their main point may not come until the end.
I was in a new city in India and asked a friend for advice on which route to take home – the loop around the city, or the more direct route through it. His answer went pretty much like this:
“You should take the road through the city. It will be the fastest one and it’s the way I go when I’m on my own. But since you are leaving in the afternoon and you have the kids with you, then you might need to take the loop as it will be difficult with the kids in the city. Yes, definitely the loop.”
You can see how processing-on-the-fly works. He saw no need to go back and correct the first statement because he saw the last thing he said as the most important.
How to speak well to an inductive listener:
Don’t begin with your main point. Set the context for why you are making this decision.
Tell stories, not facts. Facts can be persuasive, but a story always will grab the attention and make a much stronger case.
Start with the big picture. If you are making a big announcement, remind them of the overall goal first so it doesn’t take them off guard.
It’s amazing to realize that our entire perception of how good someone’s business acumen is might come from something as small as the order of communication. Being aware of the inductive vs. deductive styles of communication will really help you in your cross-cultural communication.