When Working Across Cultures, Understand What Silence Means


Here is another valuable Management Tip of the Day from Harvard Business Review. To sign up for a free subscription to any/all HBR newsletters, please click here.

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Cultural differences aren’t always obvious. Take silence, for example. At the end of a meeting, you might ask whether anyone has a question. But if your colleagues come from a culture where people tend not to ask questions in a public setting, they will keep quiet — but out of respect, not because they don’t have something to ask.

o That’s why it’s important to learn more about communication differences between your culture and your colleagues’: Do people shake their heads to mean yes (as they do in Bulgaria) rather than nodding their heads (as in the U.S.)?

o Do they defer to authority in public? Knowing these kinds of differences will help you understand what your coworkers are really saying — or aren’t saying.

So instead of assuming that silence in the meeting means your colleagues don’t need clarification, you might say, “Many people new to projects like this one have a number of questions. What are some of the issues you want to know about?”

Adapted from “3 Ways to Identify Cultural Differences on a Global Team,” by Art Markman

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