How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures

Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. A Chinese manager learns never to criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while a Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.

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

By contrast, people from 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, illustrates these miscommunications.

Germans are rather like the Dutch in respect of directness and interpret British understatement very similarly. They typically use strong words when complaining or criticizing in order to make sure the message registers clearly and honestly, of course, with the assumption that others will do the same.

However, that’s not the case when it comes to British. One needs to learn to ignore all of the soft words surrounding the message when listening to my British teammates. Of course, the other lesson is also to consider how your British staff might interpret your messages if you are delivering as “purely” as possible with no softeners whatsoever.

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

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that you need to understand the cultural tendencies and soften the message when working with cultures less direct than your own. One may start by sprinkling the ground with a few light positive comments and words of appreciation. Then ease your way into the feedback with “a few small suggestions” and add words like “minor” or “possibly.” Finally, wrap up by stating that “This is just my opinion, for whatever it is worth,” and “You can take it or leave it.”  This may not come naturally to you and you may even find it awkward, but it certainly gets the desired results!

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