Straight Talk: Sin or Virtue?

Lips zipper 2I had been away from Asia for several years when I returned on a business trip in 2004. By my second or third meeting in Bangkok, it was clear that “getting down to business”, “straight talk” and a Western “no-nonsense” approach to negotiations were not going to fly. Meetings started with a shockingly robust round of pleasantries by American business standards. In fact, it seemed that the actual “business” portion of the meeting was limited to very brief statements, sandwiched between a prolonged inquiry into how my colleague and I were enjoying Thailand at the start of the meeting, and another succession of questions and suggestions at the end as we covered how best to entertain ourselves in Thailand for the rest of the trip. My host did a superb job of making sure everyone felt at ease and there was a sense of harmony to the meeting that I had rarely witnessed in the Western “cut-to-the-chase” business etiquette that I was used to.

I can’t say that I have a definite preference when it comes to approaches to business etiquette. I can definitely appreciate the Eastern prioritization of group harmony over directness. I really enjoyed my time in Bangkok and from a business point of view, the deals we were able to negotiate by playing by the local rules proved to be very lucrative successes. On the flip side, straight talk can be enlightening because it minimizes the guessing game. I was raised by Scandinavian parents that encouraged clarity in communication to the point of bluntness. They felt that this kind of communication was honest and correct. I have countless examples of how openness and directness, however uncomfortable they may be in the short term, end up saving a lot of time and heartache in the long run. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, on his website The Welch Way, claims that candor is a principle of business communication that is necessary and helpful in any work context, anywhere – a veritable one-size fits all.

This is where I beg to differ. Millions of dollars are lost every day on business deals gone south because we as humans seem only to think about communication in terms of what is culturally accepted in our societies. We know, in theory, that people communicate differently in different parts of the world, but habits are hard to break. It seems that subconsciously, we expect others to see relationships and communication the way we do.

As a result, cultures that believe group harmony to be paramount may come across as evasive and even dishonest in cultures such as those of North America and Western Europe, where directness and clarity are the guiding force. On the other hand, Western candor often comes across as bullish and rude in many Asian countries and can be alienating to the point where deals collapse. AsianAmerica.net, an online service to promote cultural, educational and economic ties between Asia and North America, puts it like this: “It is estimated that more than half of all international joint ventures fail within two or three years. The reason most often given is cultural myopia and lack of cultural competency – not the lack of technical or professional expertise.”

There is no magical third way to completely avoid this clash of communication styles that leads to business disasters. Do your homework before you take off on international business trips or before you start negotiations with anyone from a different culture. What will their expectations be in terms of etiquette and what can you expect from them as far as their communication style?

Asian.American.net says “Customizing the learning experience is the most effective way to address specific issues and objectives and maximize the impact cultural competency can have on the company’s bottom line. In today’s global marketplace, being culturally savvy is no longer just “nice to have” but a key ingredient in building and maintaining a competitive global advantage.”

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Bjorn Karlman

7 thoughts on “Straight Talk: Sin or Virtue?”

  1. I think the most important thing is intent. Do you honestly care about the people you are meeting with? Do you have context for your relationship? Spending time to set the context is one thing, buttering up someone is another.

  2. I suppose in business a healthy balance of tact and straight-talk would be best. But, I feel having tact includes knowing when straight-talk is necessary and when it is not.
    Outside of a business setting I prefer someone to exhibit tact over being a straight-talker. Especially since people who practice straight-talk do so with their personal opinions, not necessarily the truth or facts.

    Enjoying reading your blogs. Keep writing!

  3. I must admit, I don’t know too much about the business world, however, it does seem quite difficult to have a healthy balance of straight talk and tact. In Korea for example, they seem to get more annoyed by the straight talk, then about whatever the issue is. If done in a very tactful way you stand a much better chance of getting heard.
    Personally I have more of an Asian mindset, so straight talk generally is more difficult for me. But it is always important to remember where you are and what kind of culture you are working with. I think it is true that people need to be more culturally savvy, we have so much information through the internet, that finding out how a particular culture works best should not be hard. It might not be what we are used to, but it could prove to be beneficial none-the-less.

  4. Important point Daniel, thank you. People of any culture are going to be interested in the motives behind your communication and whether or not your are being genuine. You can be as culturally sensitive as you want but unless people trust you, they are unlikely to invest in you.

  5. Thanks for the comment Kelsy! Good to see you on CultureMutt! That’s interesting that you think the ratio of candor to tact should change in social settings… Do you think friends are less “honest” with each other than colleagues?

  6. Cheris, thanks for a classic TCK response! I agree with you, I struggle with straight talk at times and I think it is because I grew up, like you, in Asia. I also feel that often I am so unpracticed in straight talk that when I actually indulge in it, it comes across too strong …

  7. No, I think friends should be honest to one another, but I believe friends still use tact when being honest cause they want to remain friends. But if you ever need candor or straight talk it’s in a friendship. I guess I was speaking from personal experience of people I don’t know that well using candor in front of me and me walking away wishing they knew the meaning of tact. I’ve also avoiding people I didn’t know that well to begin with because I thought they were tactless in the way the interacted with people.
    But then again, due to CULTURAL differences, our definitions of tact may not be the same! :-)

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