Giving negative feedback across cultures.

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Last year I met Sir Paul Smith which was a great opportunity to briefly practice my one minute me, as I like to call my personal introduction. The other evening I had the pleasure of meeting another British style icon, Jeremy Hackett, a real gentleman with obvious business skill.


When I reflect back on both conversations, I realise how both men had a very relaxed communication style. Now obviously they have plenty of opportunity to practice and fine-tune their skills, were as most of you don’t, especially in a second language. I also thought about how easy it is for me to talk to fellow British people, the way we tend to upgrade using words such as “absolutely” and “totally”, i.e. “I totally agree with you” and down-graders to soften, like “kind of” and “a little”, i.e. “I’m a little bit disappointed with you”. Now this is all well and good if you understand how different cultures use these direct and indirect linguistic techniques, but if you don’t, then you are in another cultural minefield. Let’s just look at one aspect of this direct/indirect language – giving negative feedback:

Russia, Israel and the Netherlands are the most direct at giving negative feedback. Negative messages stand alone, are not softened by positive ones and usually include absolute descriptors such as totally, inappropriate and criticism may be given in front of a group. The US and UK are in the middle of the scale and to the far right, i.e. the most indirect are Japan, Thailand and Indonesia, were negative feedback is soft, subtle and wrapped in diplomatic positive messages using qualifying descriptors like sort of inappropriate, slightly unprofessional. Remember, it all depends where you are on the scale in relation to other cultures. If however you map language context and giving negative feedback you have a better picture of behaviour:

Low context and direct negative feedback gives you cultures like Germany and Denmark, for example. Communication is explicit and negative feedback is very direct, but the messages are not intended to be offensive, but rather a sign of honesty. Accept the feedback and don’t take offence. High-context and direct negative feedback cultures are those like Spain, Italy and France. Here you have the difficult situation were communication is between the lines but negative feedback is very direct. Be aware of the difference and you can limit the chance of misunderstanding. Low-context communication and indirect negative feedback – combining extreme low- context with a mid-direct approach to giving bad news. Here we have the US and UK. Here you need to be explicit and low-context with positive and negative feedback. Balance the amount of each and be aware of cultural differences. Finally high-context and indirect negative feedback, i.e. Japan and India. Here you need to blur the message of negative feedback, do it slowly and even add food and drink to make the situation more relaxed. So in conclusion, the international manager needs to adapt, changing language rather like the honorific, humble and polite levels used in Japanese.

Remember, practice makes perfect, but “everybody needs a little help”, TALK2 TOKYO.



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