You want to be effective in your work, I’m sure. You probably also want to make people feel like they can come speak with you and like they have the support they need in their roles. But even us, the People people, sometimes follow our natural communicating styles, which are culturally influenced, without adapting. They might not always be serving your purpose of building trusted relationships with peers, managers or direct reports.
What if we stayed silent a bit longer?
Let’s explore this silence, something that in the so-called ‘Western’ world is widely disregarded as key to effective communication.
Disclaimer: Yes, there are some generalisations that we are going to use to talk about this topic. Although there are differences between various regions as well as (of course!) between individuals, there are also statistically significant differences that have been researched in the cross-cultural field. They show that people in many countries of Eastern Asia show on average different communication preference to people living in more individualistic countries such as the US, UK or Canada. Use the below examples as a guidance and support if you find yourself working with a person with a communication preference opposite to yours.
Talking over each other
Something that is given so often as feedback to colleagues from East Asia region but who are based in the UK (which is also very common in the feedback they receive in the US, Canada or Western Europe), is that “they don’t speak up enough” or that “they need to work on their presence”.
And that is true, in the more individualistically-oriented countries of ‘the West’ it is important to speak up, have an opinion, be able to express it, be comfortable on the spot. Those behaviours are rewarded and are considered professional as well.
Let’s look at the situation from the other perspective though.
It looks vastly different from the point of view of a person for whom English is not the first language, for whom speaking over each other is considered rude, and they feel like there is not enough space for them to add any of their thoughts. In a group discussion, you may have people who need more time to formulate their thoughts and brave it to speak up (and to be clear, not necessarily Asians – they may just be more introverted for example!). Maybe it’s due to the fact that they are non native speakers and although fluent, they do still sometimes need to look up words in their head or translate what’s going on, on the spot. Or maybe it conflicts their values and what they consider ‘normal’ and ‘professional’.
Also, if they are not familiar with this type of energetic and dynamic discussions, they may simply not know when they can add something in, or how much they could question the opinion of someone else in the room (eg. more senior colleagues). Maybe in the environment they grew up in they had to be invited to a conversation in order to express an opinion?
Proverbs and sayings carry a lot of those cultural meanings – you can explore a bit more on those in the most popular article on the blog: How to work with Polish people.
Rude and disrespectful
It is not the inability to speak up that stops some people from contributing to a conversation, or sharing what is really on their minds. It is likely something deeper. It may be this itchy feeling that if they do that, they’re not true to themselves and who they are. It may be that this kind of behaviour was always labelled as rude where they grew up. It may be that they feel like they’re disrespecting the other person if they are not letting the person finish or are not silent for long enough before responding. It is about the values and beliefs that you hold.
In the same way, Americans may perceive staying silent for longer before responding as unprofessional, weak leadership, and that you simply didn’t know what to say (rather than politely thinking about a valid response) or that you are simply unengaged in the conversation.
In some African countries, being together in silence can be a sign of a close relationship. We don’t have to constantly chat about whatever to be friends or to be close. We are comfortable enough that we can just be together, in silence. I see a different attitude from American or Spanish colleagues, for example, where the preference is to fill in the silence as quickly as possible. When there is a silence in a conversation, it is an awkward thing. Well, if we don’t have anything to talk about, can we still be friends?!
How to use silence wisely
There is no right way to use silence. The most important thing is to understand how it is perceived by the person you are working with. Of course, you don’t always have the space for such a deep Values conversation. Try this though: if you find yourself interrupting and filling in every gap in a conversation and the other person does not interrupt you to contribute, then you might want to reconsider your approach.
Practice staying silent.
Try pausing after every sentence or question you pose, try doing it for 3 seconds at first. It may seem looooong at first. But in some cultures, it can take even longer to get a response.
Why don’t t h e y just adapt and start talking, you might ask. That is the expectation from many indeed. But if you want your feedback to be well-received by someone, you need to built rapport with them first. And to do that, you need to give them space to actually share their perspectives, struggles and thoughts! You won’t achieve this if you always want to do things quick and are impatient with person’s responses. Especially if the conversation you are having with the other person entails self-reflection and some deeper questions about their performance or further development.
For those of you on the more ‘silent side’ who are reading this and think that all the work should be done by the other person to accommodate your preference – that is not true. You need to meet in the middle 🙂 You can try observing how the conversations run in your environment and mimic the pace of the conversations. If you are struggling because of language fluency, perhaps you could flag this to your team leader or colleagues so that they consider this during the meetings. With time, the more you participate, the more fluency you will be building.
Silence can also be used as a negotiating tool, more or less consciously. If someone is more comfortable with silence than you are, you might find yourself lowering your bids because you have not received a response and interpreted it as not being happy enough with the offer. While the others may have been considering your offer, in silence, you already didn’t stand the tension and thought that if you lower the bid then they will definitely take it straight away.
This habit and/or need of talking through the silence can be detrimental to the success of some of your conversations. Have it in the back of your head as you work with people from different backgrounds.