2014.08.23 Communication cultures

It is widely recognized that the way we prefer to communicate is influenced by the culture we come from.

Being from Scandinavia myself, this blog on Nordic communication styles and the many comments it caused has made me reflect on my own preferences.

The article referred above notes that we Scandinavians can be very direct - sometimes rudely so.

But what is rude to one may be vague to others. Among nations known to be direct are the Germanic countries: Germany, the Netherlands, the German speaking part of Switzerland, Austria, and evidently the Scandinavian countries. Israel and Russia also have direct styles.

More indirect communication is found in South America and big parts of Asia. In these cultures people may be less inclined to for example bring bad news to their superiors.

This places the English speaking countries somewhere in the middle of this continuum; something that can take particularly Americans by surprise as many see themselves as a very no-nonsense people.

One of the things that push USA towards being indirect is "political correctness". There are many taboo subjects and people invent round about ways to refer to them anyway. Another is a preoccupation of not being too critical. The same inclinations that gives children rewards for participation has promoted the "critique-sandwich" where you must deliver any negative feedback sandwiched in between something worth praising.

Immigrants must adjust to this new reality: we will not be effective in our new country if we go around insulting everybody or are too vague for our hosts to understand what we try so say. But while we adjust, it can be difficult to find the right balance.

For my own improvement I participate in a couple of T-groups. Helped by people originating from many countries - including the U.S. - I get direct feedback on how I express myself when speaking. I also give feedback to them so we can all get better together.

Getting feedback is not always nice, but being misunderstood without understanding why is worse. And when the feedback is invited, delivered respectfully, and with the best interest of the receiver in mind, it doesn't matter that it is not sandwiched. As well intentioned cushioning our words may be, a direct answer leaves less room for our often incorrect interpretations of the message.

And we shouldn't forget that feedback can also be positive. Building my own hybrid culture out of my Danish-American life experience, this is one element where I am all onboard with "the American Way" - there is no reason why we should hold back sincere praise. Just go easy on the "sandwich bread"; plastic compliments are not nutritious anyway.