Culture and communication

Communication is a central tool for any sales effort, and in a global market is even more essential. SUE BARRETT

Sue Barrett

By Sue Barrett

Selling and servicing across cultures is more common now than it has ever been. And as more and more of us come across international sales opportunities I thought it would be worth while looking at some of the challenges we may come across when trying to communicate effectively cross culturally in sales or other business areas.

In many of the articles I have written, I advocate for open, honest, trust-based relationships – being a direct, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is person; that is what I value most.

I can often find indirect, seemingly non-committal, indecisive communication a real chore. “Just get to the point” I hear myself say. Or “are you just saying ‘yes’ to just be nice or do you really want to go ahead?” Aaggh.

I don’t think I am alone, but in recent times I have really had to take a look at direct versus indirect communication styles as we are quoting for some sales and service training in Asia. I have trained in Asia before, but I really need to be much more aware about the potential communication divide and the value different cultures place on direct versus indirect communication. Especially when I am putting relevant sales and service programs that are all based around effective communication.

For instance, a well-known company has located a main part of its internal services offshore. The people in this offshore team need to answer queries, solve problems and proactively deal with their Australian counterparts.

While the technical aspects of the job are easy to train, the issue lies in how to equip these people with direct communication styles that suit their Australian audience. Some of us have seen Asian call centre staff being trained in the Australian vernacular, for example “G’day mate”. However it is so much more than that.

Understanding the core competencies and specific behaviours needed in the offshore team at each level is critical to gaining clarity and providing evidence as to the standards of work performance expected in each role would make a good start. Understanding the business and personal values shared by the people, in each country team, is also critical.

These shared values can provide a link and bridge to connect with each other. Building a further bridge between different communications styles and cultural morés is the challenge.

This issue is one of the communication dichotomies that can cause problems between Asian and Western co-workers. Each of these styles has its own intrinsic, often unspoken, rules. When a person used to communicating under one set of rules is thrust into a situation where another set of rules is being used, it ultimately leads to frustration.

Tackling this issue is not easy, especially given the cultural/communication divide. You can try cultural training but unless it is backed-up by direct behavioural interventions, shared values, links between direct and indirect communication and ongoing support then nothing will change.

I am no expert in this area, but if I am going in to train a team that uses indirect communication in their daily life and direct communication approaches and techniques that are part of another country then I had better sort it out fast. Here is some information I found as part of my ongoing study in this area. It’s a great article I found really expressed some of the issues and options very well.

Some cultures, such as in the Australia, US, Germany and Britain, generally value a direct style of communication. They like to “get down to business,” “cut to the chase,” and “get to the point”. They do not feel offended or shamed by the kind of direct statements that might be considered offensive in indirect cultures such as in Asia.

In fact, when things are not stated directly, people from direct cultures (such as Australian co-workers) can become confused and frustrated, and might not understand the message at all. They are used to communicating with people whose maxims are “say what you mean, and mean what you say” and “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’” In these cultures, being direct is how people show respect.

In cultures that use an indirect communication style, such as India, China, Japan, and other Asian cultures, it is very common to encounter situations where people communicate in a way that would not cause someone to lose face. Thus, communication happens indirectly.

Messages are subtly implied rather than explicitly stated, and people are accustomed to reading between the lines for the message. Words such as “perhaps” and “maybe” are often code for “no,” since saying “no” could risk shaming someone. In these cultures, being indirect is how people show respect.

Those from indirect cultures think of their own style as polite and face-saving, and sometimes see direct communication as rude, blunt and overly aggressive. Those from direct cultures think of their style as open and honest, and sometimes think of indirect communication as “beating around the bush” and a sign that the communicator is trying to be difficult, shifty, or maddeningly vague.

Akio Morita (co-founder of SONY) once said that when Westerners “ask questions or express an opinion, they want to know right away whether the other party agrees or opposes them. So in English, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ comes first. We Japanese prefer to save the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for last. Particularly when the answer is ‘no,’ we put off saying that as long as possible, and they find that exasperating.”

Each of us intrinsically feels that our style is the “right” style, and the other is the “wrong” style – but in the end, it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but of getting on the same wavelength.

The author of the article mentioned above suggests the keys to effective cross-cultural communication are to:

  • Try to understand the rules by which people are playing.
  • Play by their cultural rules as much as possible when we communicate with them.
  • Give them grace when they have trouble understanding and playing by the rules of our culture.

I’d be interested to hear from other people as to how they are approaching this area. You can contact me on [email protected] I’ll keep you posted. It’s an ongoing journey.


Sue Barrett is Managing Director of BARRETT Pty Ltd. Sue is an experienced consultant and trained coach and facilitator. Sue and her team are best known for their work in creating High Performing Sales Teams. Key to their success is working with the whole person and integrating emotional intelligence, skill, knowledge, behaviour, process and strategy via effective training and coaching programs. For more information please go to

For more Sell Like a Woman blogs, click here.



Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments