Having a Difficult Conversation with Someone from a Different Culture
By Melissa Hahn and Andy Molinsky
Most of us don’t enjoy having difficult conversations, period — but when they involve someone from our own culture, we can usually rely on some basic shared assumptions about what the interaction should look like.
When we have a difficult conversation with someone from a different culture, however, our task becomes harder by an order of magnitude. Now, not only do we have to address a potentially thorny subject, but we must do so while gracefully maneuvering around a series of cultural trip wires. To manage this issue it helps to understand the four most common communication trip wires, and the danger each presents.
Getting down to business vs. relationship building
In some countries like the U.S., people view conversations as an opportunity to exchange information. Participants expect each other to get down to business fairly quickly, even if there is a brief exchange of small talk. If someone waxes philosophical about the enduring nature of relationships instead of getting to the point, the other party will feel disoriented about the purpose of the conversation — and annoyed that their time is being wasted.
However, in countries such as Mexico, conversations are first and foremost an opportunity to enhance the relationship. Here, participants expect that most of the interaction will center on the subjective goal of cultivating goodwill and reinforcing feelings of interdependence and mutual obligation. If one party were to “cut to the chase” too quickly, the other party would feel confused about why they were being treated so aggressively. Depending on the context, they may become offended, go into damage control mode, or even interpret the harsh approach as a sign that the relationship is being terminated.
The danger here is that someone from a task-oriented country may focus so much on the immediate problem that the person from the relationship-oriented country leaves feeling devalued. On the other hand, the person from the relationship-oriented country may try so hard to avoid making waves that their counterpart from a task-oriented country winds up assuming that there is no problem to address.
Direct vs. indirect communication
In countries like Germany, it is a sign of respect and professionalism to speak clearly and leave no room for misinterpretation — especially in a difficult conversation. Those who speak indirectly are judged as being inarticulate, having muddled thinking, lacking confidence, or hiding something. If one party were to approach a difficult topic by “beating around the bush,” it would likely make the other person confused and impatient.
By contrast, in countries like Japan, people prefer to communicate indirectly, especially when it comes to a sensitive topic. To avoid inadvertently damaging a relationship or causing someone to lose face, people approach problems through subtle hints, vague references, or general statements. If someone were to directly state a problem, at best it would make them look ungraceful, immature, and untrustworthy; at worst it could cut the other person like a knife and even end of the relationship.
The danger here is that a person from a direct culture may come across as insensitive and ill-mannered, while the person from the indirect culture may appear scattered and shifty.
Low vs. high context
In countries like Canada, the message of a conversation is primarily contained within the exact words that are spoken. Conversation participants might also notice posture, facial expressions, and things that aren’t said for the sake of being nice, but they would not weight them as heavily as what each party actually says.
In other countries, like South Korea, conversation participants scan for meaning on many different frequencies. Not only do they read between the lines in the words that are spoken and pay very close attention to the emotional side of the message, but they also find significance in the conversation setting, the relationship status between the two parties, and the greater organizational and social context playing out behind the scenes.
The danger here is that someone from a low-context culture may think she is communicating a very specific, limited statement — but the person listening to her may infer all kinds of unintended messages. On the other hand, a person from a high-context culture may believe he is presenting a rich tapestry of nuanced meaning, but the person listening to him may only hear the words that he says.
Informality vs. formality
In some countries, such as Australia, where people are generally casual and laid back, they may try to diffuse any tension by approaching the conversation without too much fuss. In fact, they might even interpret an overtly formal setting as a sign that the situation was worse than they’d thought, which would put them on edge.
Yet in other countries, like Poland, people expect the degree of ceremony to match the gravity of the topic being discussed. Meeting in a formal office with some observance of protocol would be expected, as it conveys respect and shows a seriousness of purpose. In this case, being casual could come across as flippant or glib, or give the impression that the ramifications have not been sufficiently thought through.
The danger here is that someone from an informal culture may unintentionally appear like he didn’t care enough to make an effort, or may inadvertently undermine the topic he needs to discuss. At the same time, a person from a more formal culture might unwittingly up the ante and make her counterpart believe the situation is much direr than originally thought.
When you think of it this way, having a difficult conversation with someone from another culture can appear perilous — and it can be. So, what can you do about it?
- Survey the landscape of the conversation you need to have, and identify potential places where these trip wires might ensnare you.
- Take stock of what you know about the other person and her culture. If you don’t know anything at all, now is a good time to do some research, because chances are that if it’s a difficult conversation you have to have, then it’s also an important one.
- Look for places where you can overlap with their style. For most people, it’s not all or nothing. Someone from a task-oriented culture can preface what they say with five to ten minutes of tea and conversation about the relationship, for example, and someone from a more formal culture can intentionally dial down the seriousness for one conversation.
- Focus on the trip wire that matters the most. If it’s too much pressure to sail over all four of these, prioritize the one you think could be most vital in this particular context.
By definition, it’s never easy to have a difficult conversation. However, when we have these across cultures, it can be downright confounding. By being mindful of these trip wires and delicately stepping over and around them, you can prevent the conversation style from getting in the way of the content.