My Three Cents

For thousands of years, humans have conducted business across geographic, political and cultural boundaries.  (For example, during the first century BC, the complex trade routes of the Silk Road linked China to India and the Western world.)

You’d think it would be even easier now — in today’s “socialized” world — to communicate with colleagues and clients in other countries.  But too often, we are careful about what we say and are far less attuned to how our words can be misunderstood because of cultural biases. 

In a recent article on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, author Erin Meyer demonstrates how business language is filled with nuance and thus is subject to misinterpretation…even by well-informed and thoughtful speakers who are all fluent in English.  For example, when, in a meeting, a Brit says slowly and thoughtfully, “Very interesting,” he likely means, “I don’t like it.”  If a Dutch businessman is present, he will understand the Brit’s communique as “We’re impressed.”

According to the article, “All this can be interesting, surprising, and sometimes downright painful, when you are leading a global team:  as you Skype with your employees in different cultures, your words will be magnified or minimized significantly based on your listener’s cultural context.”

The author points out that Chinese managers never criticize a colleague openly or in front of others.  The Dutch, on the other hand, always try to be honest and straight-forward when giving feedback.  Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones.  The French are conditioned to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.

The article says one way to begin gauging how a culture handles negative feedback is by listening to the types of words people use.  More direct cultures tend to use what linguists call upgraders, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly:  “This is absolutely inappropriate,” or “This is totally unprofessional.”

By contrast, the article notes, more indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement, such as “We are not quite there yet” when you really mean “This is nowhere close to complete.” The British are masters at it.  The “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide”, which has been circulating in various versions on the Internet, and is cited in the article, illustrates some of the miscommunication that can result.

What The British Say

     What the British Mean

What the Dutch Understand

  With all due respect…


       I think you are wrong.

       He is listening to me.

I was a bit disappointed

I am very upset and angry that…

    It doesn’t really matter.

     Very interesting


           I don’t like it.

      They are impressed.

So you have to work to understand how your own way of giving feedback is viewed in other cultures.

thought leadership


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