Culture Clash


Sunday, July 28, 2002

Listening to the
thundering thud
of silence

'Hong Kong beckons," Jed Poole said to himself as he made final arrangements for his first trip to Asia.

Jed was a very successful telecommunications executive in Miami and had been invited to Hong Kong to examine possible joint ventures. Chiu Xing, president of a small company whose board of directors wanted to expand into other Asian markets, initiated the visit. Jed told Chiu Xing that he would like to give a talk to company employees and to make suggestions for future collaborative activities. He shared a few preliminary ideas on specific projects during e-mail exchanges with Chiu Xing, who then asked various managers to do research on these ideas.

After arriving in Hong Kong and meeting with company executives, Jed was led to a room where he would give his presentation. Approximately 50 employees attended, including recently hired managers from Thailand, Japan and Vietnam. Jed thought that he did a good job, but when he asked for questions or comments he was met with a deafening silence. This contrasted greatly with the feistiness and intellectual give and take he was accustomed to at meetings in Miami.

Jed has encountered a cultural guidance for behavior that is common in Asia.

People don't often ask questions or share reactions after a formal presentation. One explanation is that, from the Asian perspective, the disadvantages of questions and comments outweigh the advantages. Company employees may feel that they will look foolish if their question or comments are too elementary. They may be especially sensitive about this given that people from different countries are present and so national pride may be a factor. They may fear that they will be indirectly criticizing Chiu Xing for not preparing them well enough for Jed's visit. They may even feel that Jed will be insulted if there is the indirect suggestion that he should have covered other material in his formal presentation.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with James Wills, UH College of Business Administration. If Chiu Xing wants questions and answers, he must give people preparation time for this task. He may know that Americans often end their talks with the inquiry, "Any questions?" With this knowledge, he can ask employees to prepare questions and comments as part of their research prior to Jed's visits. He can let five or six employees know that he will be calling on them after Jed's presentation.

As long as people are prepared and have been encouraged to ask questions and to make suggestions, they are willing to go beyond the stony silence that often marks the end of formal presentations.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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