The Truth about Lies Across Cultures
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When I was doing research
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.is an international
Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of
language in the workplace.
coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and
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 Authors Google+
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2013-08-12 15:16:08 in Personal Articles