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When you ask a question, and the answer never comes

Monday January 21st, 2019

“It’s really frustrating for me. I send a mail with a clear question, and they do not even respond. It’s like they forget it.”

“What I don’t like when speaking with them is that sometimes they just look blank at you, and do not give a clear answer. It’s like they avoid the issue.”

“The silence is disturbing. I try to pull information out of them, but there’s just silence from their side. It gets on my nerves.”

“There’s never a clear ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. What do they really mean when they say: ‘Maybe’, ‘This is kind of difficult’ or ‘Ah, interesting’.”

 

These are comments often heard from Europeans and Americans when working with Asian cultures. To start with, the communication is not easy with the limited level of English spoken in some Asian countries. And the limited hours of the day you can speak directly to each other is limited due to the different time zones: planning a meeting requires sensitive navigation of expectations, and one can never find the right moment for all. But even when you finally are on the same call and discussing a topic, there seem to be other problems. And these go beyond the difference in communication styles. Sure, the Asians speak less direct as we are used to in the west and they may be uncomfortable at times to give a clear opinion or point out something negative, but the problems with silence and the avoidance to give an answer seem to come from somewhere else.

In the western part of the world, we are used to asking questions and giving answers very directly. There are no sensitivities to ask a question (you cannot make somebody else losing face when directing a question at the person). And when a question is asked, we can answer very directly. There is no protocol that prescribes who has to answer, and it is ok for all of us to have an individual opinion. When I ask a question, one person can answer ‘A’, and another person can indicate a preference for ‘B’. If we do not know the answer to a question, we will openly tell you. And when we do not want to answer, we may tell you so as well.

This is different in most Asian cultures, with differences most pronounced in Japan, Korea and China (certainly in formal meetings).

 

Collectivism

 

Asian cultures are collectivistic. People feel part of a group, are loyal towards the group and will identify with the group very strongly. This group can be extended family, a department or team, an entire company or even a country. Within the group, people will ensure nobody loses face: the ‘code of conduct’ within the group dictates that all group members ensure to not bring another member of the group in a difficult position. In practice, this means people do not strongly disagree with each other, or if they do, they will not openly say so. They will find indirect ways to settle their disagreements. Also, one will not ask sharp or difficult questions to another member of the group, when you know the other person cannot answer or does not want to answer. You do not bring the other person in a difficult position, so you ask your questions in an indirect and careful way.

There are many advantages to this way of working. Team members often feel protected and taken care of by other members of the team, there are high levels of engagement and belonging to the group, and conflicts do not arise. Group members are safe and will help each other solve eventual problems.

There are also disadvantages, especially in the eye of the western person who interacts with the Asians. Direct questions often lead to confusion and avoidance of answering on the other side of the table. Long silences are painful and uncomfortable, and many questions that are essential for your discussions do not get answered immediately.

What is happening is that in a collectivistic culture, when you ask a direct question, the group needs to give one answer on behalf of the entire group. Individual opinions will not be ventilated, as these may go against to collective opinion of the group. And different opinions by different people on a team may even be considered as ‘dangerous’. When people contradict each other, it means there is a problem in the team, and not everybody is on the same page. This should be avoided.

When a direct question gets asked, quite often the group was not able to align on a collective answer yet. So instead of just giving a personal answer (like we would do in the west), people in eastern cultures will wait to give an answer until they had the opportunity to choose a response on behalf of the group. When they did not get a chance to prepare a formal answer, they rather prefer to be silent, than to give an answer that may go against the group answer (which is still to be formulated). This effect is magnified in the presence of a strong hierarchy, which is the case in most Asian cultures. The difference between western and eastern responses when a question is asked is depicted schematically in below figure.

Practical tips

 

Now what can you do to ensure the communication with collectivistic cultures – and groups – goes more smoothly. I give 5 tips:

  1. Prepare the group for what is coming. Announce what you want to know from them upfront (with an email for example) and prepare them for the questions you will have. Better even, send them the questions upfront so they can prepare an answer on behalf of their team.
  2. When asking a direct question in a formal meeting, follow the question by a time-out or short break. Especially in negotiations, this is a good idea, as it gives the team on the other side of the table the possibility to align and formulate an answer. They need this time.
  3. When an answer is not given (silence) or avoided (you get a vague answer or an answer that is unrelated to the original question), resist the temptation to push harder. We tend to ask the question again and put more pressure, but this generally is not appreciated and will not speed up the process. Be patient and understand that an answer cannot be given yet. Do not think they do not want to answer you. They want to, but cannot in this stage.
  4. Set the agenda upfront. When doing a brainstorm meeting with your virtual team, tell them upfront you want their suggestions for a better way of working. Or even tell them – directly – that you expect them to come with suggestions for a better way of working. When they know up front, they will be prepared and unified in their answers.
  5. Finally, these communication problems mainly come up in formal settings. When the problems persist, look for solutions and answers outside the formal meeting. Ask the manager from the other team for advice during a smoking break. Offer your colleague from the other team your help may bring you further than insist on an answer. Get advice and offer your help in the informal circuit will make many formal discussions much easier.

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