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The Truth about Lies Across Cultures

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Dr Carol Kinsey Goman - Expert Author

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When I was doing research for “The Truth About Lies in the Workplace,” I was disappointed not to find more studies on how culture influences our definition (and experience) of being told a lie.

I wish I had met Stuart Friedman sooner! Stuart is the CEO of Global Context, and here's what he told me about lies and cultural misunderstandings.

Carol: My interest is in how businesspeople in the U.S. mistakenly think someone is lying because of cultural variances. You gave me so many to choose from, but my favorites were your stories about U.S. business dealings in Canada, Brazil, South Korea, and Finland.

Stuart: These are some of my favorite, as well. Let’s start with Canada, where cultural differences can hide in plain sight.

“What do you mean he’s angry? The entire hour we were together he was calm and relaxed. We discussed his concerns and came up with a plan to get things back on track. But he never sounded the least bit angry. Why didn’t he tell me the truth?"

They look the same, talk the same, and sometimes even sound the same. It’s only natural an American would think a Canadian would act the same. But there are differences. For example, they are inclined to remain calm and reserved in difficult situations. But that leads the American to wrongly assume how the Canadian really feels. So when the American learns the Canadian was actually angry, the American makes his second wrong assumption; he concludes the Canadian was intentionally hiding his feelings.

Carol: I love that example because I’ve also observed that although there are universal expressions (joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, contempt), the display of those emotions – especially in business dealings – varies greatly by culture. Another cultural variance is the importance of relationships. How can that lead to misunderstandings?

Stuart: Which brings us nicely to my story about Brazil.

“I don’t understand. They repeatedly said their schedule was going to be tight. So when I mentioned I couldn’t attend the meeting in São Paulo next week, I committed to send our most experienced project manager. That way we wouldn’t have to delay the meeting, and we could finalize the contract as planned. So why did they cancel? There’s something they’re not telling us…”

Americans know that when it comes to business, “time is money.” But what they don’t know is that some cultures put a higher priority on other values. Sure, in the U.S.A. if a project schedule is at risk the last thing you’d want to do is delay finalizing the contract. But in Brazil, it’s the people involved and the relationships with them that matters most. Relationships can trump deadlines. If the American has been involved in putting this deal together, most Brazilians would accommodate the American and postpone the meeting–even if it impacted the project schedule.

In fact, just by suggesting the meeting should take place as scheduled the American has signaled his business priorities. For many Brazilians, this alone could cause them to question the American’s integrity as a business partner. They might ask themselves, “If this is how we’re treated when he is trying to get our business, what can we expect after he has our business?” They might conclude this isn’t the kind of long-term and trustworthy relationship they want and cancel the meeting. And what began as a simple lack of cultural knowledge, quickly evolves into a matter of trust.

Carol: We in the U.S. pride ourselves on our directness (a trait that is not universally perceived as positive, by the way) but some cultures avoid confrontation in ways that may look deceptive.

Stuart: Right. And South Korea is one of them.

“Are you kidding? We had to wait all this time to get a development schedule from them, and this is what they finally sent? Everything on it is wrong! Frankly, they're either lying to us about something, or they just don't understand the business.”

What if it were socially acceptable to avoid uncomfortable discussions? What if there were a variety of “allowable” ways of handling the situation–everything from skirting around the issue with misinformation to saying that you still don't have the information or even completely ignore responding. If there was a way to signal someone that you had news they’re not going to like think of how harmonious it would if you could avoid any confrontation.

Well, welcome to South Korea. In South Korea, “kibun” is the term for this blend of mood, face-saving, and social harmony, and “nunchi” is the essential ability to read whatever is left unsaid. Like other Asian cultures, Koreans are influenced by Confucian values that encourage harmony at the risk of not sharing information. But should the pressure to “confront” persist, Koreans no longer avoid the discussion, but will say something they think the other person wants to hear. In this case it could be a long forgotten development schedule that the Koreans hope everyone recognizes is no longer possible, or a schedule that merely reflects a recent management request.

Carol: In the U.S. we believe our business dealings are direct and candid. But we don’t always look that way to others. Could you give me an example of where that might happen?

Stuart: Sure. Finland is a country where there is a very tight correlation between words spoken, and the absolute truth. Integrity and credibility are built from always living up to one’s words, so there is a high value on communication without spin, exaggeration or oversimplification.

“Although it was only our first meeting with them, it was clear we had the expertise they needed for the project. All was going great until they asked if we had concerns about meeting their schedule. That’s when our product manager from Finland, Jukka, said we didn't have enough resources to start the project anytime soon. He said he would check further and get back to them, but he wasn’t optimistic. And if he’s not optimistic, how can we expect our customer to be? I tried to explain to Jukka afterwards that you can’t be so brutally honest and expect them to feel good when the news improves. But Jukka says that makes no sense to him, and that he would never lie to the customer to get the business.

The U.S. and Finland both lean heavily towards the truth and directness, but what constitutes truth and directness varies greatly across cultures. Whereas Americans are comfortable taking liberty with the truth when it comes to marketing, selling and getting the business, to a Finn it can sound like lies. You see, the Finns believe that their words are their commitments. They establish their credibility by understating their abilities, and delivering what they promise. Period.

As Stuart’s examples illustrate, it is easy for people with the best of intentions to still be misunderstood -- and even branded as liars. When we don’t know a person’s beliefs, values and biases, how can we be certain that what we heard was what they meant? However, one thing is certain; the more we understand how culture influences behavior in business dealings, the less inclined we are to assume we’re being deceived.


About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.is an international Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of body language in the workplace. Communications coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and effectiveness.
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”

Carol@CarolKinseyGoman.com
Office: 510-526-1727
Berkeley, California
www.CarolKinseyGoman.com

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2013-08-12 15:16:08 in Personal Articles

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