How to Argue Across Cultures
December 5, 2013 Editor 0
Do you tackle problems with colleagues, partners, and customers head-on? If so, chances are you’re from Western Europe or North America and, our research suggests, vulnerable to blind spots when working with people from other parts of the world. And if you’re from an East Asian culture, the subtle cues you rely on to signal your disagreement may be sailing right past Westerners.
In much of the West, it is considered maddeningly inefficient to talk around an issue, whereas East Asians tend to view direct confrontation as immature and unnecessary. That difference amounts to a frustrating cultural divide in how people solve problems at work.
Westerners prefer to get issues out in the open, stating the problem and how they’d like to see it resolved. People don’t expect their logically constructed arguments to be taken personally. Often, they describe problems as violations of rights and hold one another accountable for fixing them. In fact, they consider such behavior “professional.” But that same approach is an anathema throughout East Asia, where the overriding impulse is to work behind the scenes through third parties to resolve conflicts, all the while maintaining harmony and preserving relationships. When there is no third party to intervene, the professional approach to confrontation is to subtly draw attention to concerns through stories or metaphors, placing the onus on the other person or group to recognize the problem and decide how to respond. To convey disapproval, an East Asian might say, “That could be difficult,” without explaining why.
Why It’s Hard to Meet in the Middle
Although common sense tells us we should move past our own cultural preferences in a global business environment, it’s not easy to do. And many people don’t realize how pronounced the cultural differences are until they find themselves perplexed by a colleague’s behavior.
Recently, a Western manager spoke to us about the mysterious (to him) behavior of a high-potential East Asian he had been assigned to mentor during a three-month assignment at the company’s U.S. headquarters. He said, “Every time the East Asian manager disagrees with an American marketing manager he’s working with on a project, he comes to me to resolve the disagreement! Is he doing this because the marketing manager is a woman?” Gender probably has nothing to do with it, we explained. More likely, the East Asian manager worries that direct disagreement will damage their working relationship, so he’s involving a higher-level manager to preserve peace by adjudicating.
In avoiding direct confrontation, East Asians can appear to Westerners as unresponsive or even passive-aggressive. At the same time, Westerners who confront directly may come across to East Asians as aggressive and disruptive to traditional status hierarchies. And neither side recognizes its unintentional affront to the business relationship. The result of all this? Discord that could have been resolved escalates into a major conflict in which everyone stands to lose: Deals and long-term business relationships fall apart. Take, for instance, the now-defunct joint venture between French-owned Danone and Chinese owned Wahaha. Based on the results of an internal audit, majority owner Danone publicly accused the head of Wahaha—and his family— of siphoning off $100 million from the JV. That direct confrontation was followed by an epic corporate battle that ended, after years of public and legal fights, with the dissolution of the joint venture.
Here’s an example with a much better outcome: A Western entrepreneur had a contract to supply a German buyer with bicycles that he was having produced in China. When the bicycles were ready for shipment, he went to the plant to check on quality and discovered that they rattled. Rather than telling the plant manager that the rattling had to be fixed before shipment, he suggested that they take a couple of bikes off the line and go for a ride in the countryside. At the end of the ride, he mentioned that he thought his bike had rattled; then he left the plant and anxiously awaited news from the German buyer. Had he relied on his own cultural preferences, he would have told the plant manager up front that the rattling bikes had to be fixed before shipping. But because he was attuned to East-West variation in approaches to conflict, he knew that a direct confrontation could cause loss of face and retaliation might very well result in a shipment of rattling bikes. The plant manager apparently picked up on the entrepreneur’s culturally sensitive cues and assumed ownership of the problem, because the German buyer received a satisfactory shipment of bikes.
Adapting Your Style
The most effective global managers, like the entrepreneur in the bike story, develop the focus and control to shift from one style of confrontation to the other, depending on the situation. If you have little experience managing conflict beyond your cultural comfort zone, here are some suggestions for adjusting your style.
If you’re most familiar with the West:
- Look for subtext. If you suddenly realize you’re listening to a story or a metaphor, that’s a signal. Think: Why this story? Why this metaphor? If you’re stumped, you might say, “How interesting. Why do you think the person in the story did that? What was she expecting others to do?”
- Suggest a tentative solution. Express it as a question—“Could this be done?”—and not as a given. Listen for “that might be difficult” or a noncommittal “yes,” which may really mean “no” and certainly suggests that your approach isn’t optimal.
- Don’t be put off by third-party intervention. Understand that by not confronting you directly, your East Asian colleague is treating you with respect, even while disagreeing with your approach.
If you’re most familiar with the East:
- Brace yourself for direct behavior. When your Western counterpart directly challenges your assumptions, offers solutions, or asks you to take responsibility, it is unlikely to be an intentional attack on you. He is probably not questioning your status or authority, but rather questioning the situation. You’ll reduce the risk of losing face by arranging for a private meeting to discuss issues.
- Ask follow-up questions to test for understanding. What seems clear to you may be lost on those more familiar with Western communication styles—even when spoken in their language.
- Recognize that your counterpart will be surprised and possibly offended if you communicate your concerns through a third party rather than directly.
Of course, you don’t have to make all the concessions yourself. But you’ll need to make some if you want to resolve more cross-cultural conflicts than you create.
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