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I am a localization manager/translator and intercultural consultant living in Berlin (Germany), passionate about languages, cultures, diversity management, dancing and good movies.  

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sugar lips, the perfect silence and why a smile is not just a smile, while practicing intercultural communication

In some cultures (let's call these cultures A-type) it is considered very impolite to say no to something or someone. Because of it, most expressions of rejection and refusal, like criticism, negative feedback, saying no, pointing problems or malfunctioning out in a direct way are no-no and they would be considered a personal attack against someone and not a mere desire of giving feedback or discussing a specific issue or situation.

These kinds of behaviour have no place in such cultures - that are based on harmony, strong group identity, sense of belonging - and rejection is expressed in an indirect way, that sometimes can be very difficult to be perceived as a strong "no" from someone belonging to another culture, where criticism is socially accepted and even encouraged (let's call this other culture B-type).

[The famous criticism sandwich...
are you hungry?]

In such cultures (A-type) that tend to avoid any kind of conflict, if someone asks a question and the answer should be no or somehow unpleasant, the other person tends to answer in a roundabout way or to try to change the subject or, even better from the person's point of view, to not say absolute anything. 
In some cultures, a silent smile after a question is a polite way to say "Thanks, but no thanks" or "I disagree with you but I don't want to discuss the matter right now" or even "I consider you a jerk, but I am too polite to say that, so I smile".

[A smile is not just a smile...]

The silence means in most of those cultures NO.
In other cultures (B-type), on the other hand, the silence after a question means YES. It means that someone agrees with someone else about something or that both consider the situation clear enough and they don't need to discuss further about it.

So, as you can imagine, if people from different cultures interact and perceive not saying anything in a completely different way,  the silence can be easily misunderstood and it can lead to a lot of communication and intercultural problems.

If someone from an A-type culture discusses a problem with someone from a B-type culture and both align themselves with their own culture and consider their own cultural communication strategy (being not direct, silence as NO / being direct, silence as YES) as natural, logical and easy for everybody to understand, we will probably have a perfect recipe for disaster...

[A wonderful quote about silence by Elbert Hubbard
Image source: Lifehack Quotes]

It is a very tricky situation indeed, also because people are usually not aware of their own cultural imprint and consider their way of thinking and acting as natural and not cultural-determined.

Someone that grew up in an A-type culture will consider normal to react in a specific way and will consider too direct and maybe even insensitive someone from a B-type culture, while the person from a B-type culture would have no clue about his/her behaviour being considered too rude by someone else and could consider the behaviour of someone from an A-type culture ambivalent, vague, hesitant or even worse.

What one can do, to be sure to understand what a silence means?
In my humble opinion, one can do exactly the same as with almost every other kind of situation: pay attention to what people do, not to what people say. Or not say, for that matter.

[Men as exponents of an A-type culture, 
women as exponents of a B-Type culture...
or He’s Just Not That Into You (2009) by Ken Kwapis]

If someone tells you that he/she adores to spend time with you and yet you are the only one trying to make a date... Or the person is not writing/calling back/being there for you...
If someone avoids you while being sure that you haven't noticed it...
If someone promises you something and then the promise is going to be broken more than two times in a row...
If someone replies to you and your questions only by being vague or you don't get a reply at all...

Then I am sorry, but you should pay attention to what the actions are telling you, instead to listen to the words or instead of being so sure that you are both sharing the same idea or the same vision about something, no matter if that "something" is a project, a relationship, a political manifesto, a friendship, etc.

I can understand that you would prefer to believe that everything is fine. But if I am interpreting a no like a yes, then it is not fine at all. Then I have a problem... and so do you, if you are doing the same.
People say sometimes that kind words are like honey or sugar, but too much sugar can be dangerous...

[Snoopy is the only one allowed to be called Sugar lips...]

Words are perceived in most cases as less binding, less important, less long-lasting. So we tend to say (or not say) something even if we don't really mean it, or at least not every time, under every circumstance. At the end of the day, it matter what we do, not what we say.

What do you think?

Tags: Intercultural communication, Cultural misunderstanding, Diversity, Silence, yes-no, He's Just Not That Into You, Quotes

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  1. When I reply with just a smile, I often mean: "ok, I don't want to talk about it anymore". You don't give other elements to let the conversation go on.. Anyway, I heard about it (not saying no), while studying Japanese Language, you won't receive a direct NO from a Japanese for any reason (or so it said my teacher!!)!!!

  2. About your smiling: in other cultures smiling could be interpreted as agreeing with someone/something, since not in every culture people tend to smile in the same circumstances Italian people tend to.

    The distinction between A-type and B-type cultures is always a relative one: culture XY is more A-type than culture YZ, but culture YZ is more A-type than XX, and so on.

    The main culture present in Italy is for example an A-type culture in comparison with most main cultures present in the Northeuropean countries and in the US, but it is for sure a B-type culture in comparison with the main cultures present in almost all Asian countries, like Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan, and so on.

    Think about how difficult it is for most people around you to say no if someone asks something they don't want to do and how indirect people usually decline an invitation or do things only because of the "group pressure". Maybe not you personally, but for sure you know people like this...

    I also tend to smile in a polite way if I don't want to say something unpleasant, even if I don't do that in every occasion. I realized that in Berlin. Before of it, I thought that I was a very direct person, what it is somehow true, but not in every occasion.