by Craig Storti
Consider the following exchange between an American and a Chinese colleague:
Pat: Hey, Lin. I just got your email.
Pat: But I had a question. In the conference call this morning you said it would only take your team a week to do those enhancements.
Lin: Sure. You mentioned, I believe, that it would be great if we could do them in one week.
Pat: But your email says it’s going to take two weeks?
Lin: Oh yes. I just wanted to be sure we understood each other.
If you’re Pat, you’re taken aback (to say the least) by the fact that Lin would say one thing in a meeting and then email you later and say something else. And the reason you’re taken aback is cultural: for most Americans, a cultural norm regarding meetings is that people will “tell the truth,” by which they mean people will say more or less what they are thinking or what they know to be accurate, in this case about how long it will take to complete a certain job.
If you’re Lin, you’re also taken aback, in your case by the fact that Pat is surprised that you agreed with him in the meeting and then told him something else later. And the reason you’re taken aback is also cultural: for most Asians, a cultural norm regarding a meeting is that there should not be any obvious, significant disagreement between two parties in front of others. So Lin has done “the right thing” by agreeing with Pat during the conference call and then following up with a clarification.
It won’t come as any surprise to regular readers of this column that meetings, like most things about work and the workplace, are affected by culture, and that people from different cultures might think about and conduct meetings very differently. And the Pat-Lin story highlights one of those key differences, namely the purpose of a meeting.
“It stands to reason that if cultures see the purpose of meetings differently, then they will conduct meetings in different ways and behave differently during them.”
It stands to reason that if cultures see the purpose of meetings differently, then they will conduct meetings in different ways and behave differently during them. In a number of Asian cultures, meetings tend to be pro forma, not much more than rituals held to celebrate a consensus that is reached outside and in advance of the meeting, usually in a series of one-on-one conversations between the stakeholders and managers. In North America, on the other hand, the whole purpose of a meeting is to bring people together to forge a consensus through spirited discussion and deliberation. At any meeting Pat would attend, a due date for the enhancements would be advanced, argued vigorously if appropriate, and adjusted according to everyone’s input.
Another cultural dynamic that affects how meetings unfold East and West is the sensitivity to rank and status. In U.S. culture, to put it succinctly, there is no sensitivity. All participants in an American meeting are considered “equals,” at least for the duration of the meeting, in the sense that a person’s rank vis-a-vis other participants should not affect whether that person speaks up or whether that person is free to disagree with or offer a conflicting point of view to someone of higher rank, such as one’s supervisor.
Asian cultures are considerably more sensitive to rank, and all workplace interactions, accordingly, have to be rank-appropriate. The need to be rank-sensitive does not end at the door of the meeting room; if anything, it’s even more important to respect rank in a meeting than outside of one. So this means, among other things, that lower ranking individuals often do not speak at a meeting unless they are called on by their superiors, and they would likewise be very uncomfortable challenging or questioning anything a higher-up said in front of other people.
So what’s the lesson here for the U.S. workplace? If you’re an American manager with Asian-born staff, you may need to educate them about these cultural differences in meeting style and about your expectations of how they will behave in an American meeting. If Asian staff are reluctant to speak up unless called on, for example, or unwilling to disagree with/offer opposing opinions in front of higher-ups (preferring to do so only later, after the meeting)—these behaviors will frustrate U.S. managers and other meeting participants.
A consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: [email protected] or learn more at his website: craigstorti.com.