Monday, November 27, 2017


This is the last of our series on how different cultures conceptualize ideas in different ways, reminding you to be sure to communicate in a style that Americans will readily grasp. This Tip discusses the Oriental pattern, particularly evident in Japan and to a lesser extent in Korea and Southeast Asia. It is the most radically different model from the direct, to-the-point American pattern.
The Oriental model can be illustrated as a circle spiraling inward in a concentric pattern until at the very center, when the end-point is reached, the conversational point is made. This pattern is built upon the two things that are most anathema to Americans and the English language in general. Consequently, it can cause the greatest confusion and misunderstanding.

First and central to American discourse is the fact that Americans are uncomfortable with silence. They will fill any space with words, even if those words are not substantive but merely “fillers” (recall an earlier Tip about “small talk”).

By contrast, the Japanese, and others mentioned here, include silence in every message. For them, moments of silence reveal a respectful, thoughtful attitude and serve to separate conversational points with deliberate pauses. When an Asian speaker follows the Oriental pattern of the “inward spiral,” blending stated thoughts with moments of silence, Americans do not know when he is “finished” or has made his point!

A second great difference is that the Japanese language often omits what Americans would consider crucial grammatical words, such as some pronoun subjects and certain verb tenses. English requires these. English also employs frequent use of grammatical connectors, whether they be subordinate clauses, clarifying phrases, or connecting conjunctions. Thoughts are never left to chance, but instead are spelled out repeatedly in various forms. Americans look for these signals as they try to follow an argument. By contrast, a thought’s “point” presented in the Oriental pattern can be so hidden and embedded in the sequence of spoken and silent moments, that Americans can become hopelessly lost. They may also wonder if the speaker is himself clear on the process leading to his idea or message.

In America, Asian speakers should be sure to keep their train of thought flowing with words, including those that serve specifically to clarify the meaning and sequence of the speaker’s thoughts.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Different cultures conceptualize ideas in different ways, so you must be sure to communicate in a style that Americans will readily grasp. Today we’ll move from the European pattern to how a Middle Eastern one can also cause problems with American listeners. This pattern applies to Arab, Israeli and other cultures in the Middle East. It is, metaphorically speaking, noisier and more intense than the American one, like the difference between Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Union Square in San Francisco.

The Middle Eastern pattern is illustrated by a series of parallel arrows, each a little longer or stronger than the one before. A point is not made until it is repeated several times, each time a little more forcefully.

By contrast, a single straight arrow represents the American style of expression. It goes directly and immediately to the essential point. Americans will react to the first thing they hear. And their responses will be immediate and final.

So an American tourist might be wandering through the bazaar in Turkey, when approached by a rug merchant. The merchant asks, “May I show you a beautiful rug?” And the American politely says, “No thanks.”

The merchant persists: “This is an exquisite rug.” The American repeats, “No thanks.” The merchant continues, “Look, let me show you the small, tight knots, all by hand!” The American is now annoyed and says flatly, “Very nice but I’m not interested.” Undeterred, the merchant says, “Come inside and I’ll work out a special price for you!”

The tourist stops, shakes his head at the merchant and says, “Sorry, no! I’m not interested in buying a rug. I have no money for this. I have no time now, and at home I have no space. So please! NO THANK YOU!”

“Okay, have a good day. Remember Istanbul happily!”

What happened here? The American thought he had settled the question when he initially said “No thanks” (direct answer to a direct question). Meanwhile, the merchant felt he had not asked the question fully until he had repeated his point several times, each time with more urgency. And he did not hear the tourist’s answer until that was also repeated many times. Once the Middle Eastern pattern of Q&A was complete, the merchant was happy to end the interchange pleasantly.

In America, Middle Eastern speakers should be careful not to repeat themselves, nor to infuse their words with excessive, heated expression. And they should listen for the first quiet but clear answer!

Monday, November 13, 2017


Be sure to express your thoughts in a way that Americans will readily grasp, because different cultures conceptualize ideas in different ways. Today we’ll address two variations of the European pattern we discussed last time. Specifically, these would apply to Russians and Latin Americans.

You’ll recall that the European pattern is like an upside-down version of the standard American outline form. Instead of stating the point first –as Americans normally do—the European pattern builds to that point by first making preparatory comments, such as offering historical background, citing the comments of experts, and giving supporting statistics. This may bore or confuse the American listener, who can feel lost, confused or annoyed at an “effete” speaker who loves the sound of his own voice!

The Russian pattern is exactly the same except not as smooth or clear. Like the European speaker, the Russian will also pursue a litany of background information, but it will seem disjointed, even rambling to the American listener. This lack of connection is due to Russian syntax and a lack of articles in the language. Russians must remember to use articles when required, to give their English sentences a smooth continuity. And they should practice a variety of connecting phrases (in order to, so that, as a result, conversely and so forth) to establish a clear relationship of one sentence to another.

The Latin American mindset incorporates respectful personal references into most communication exchanges. So like the European model that precedes its point with supporting information, the Latin pattern may first make polite social references or add flowery phrases (if you don’t mind my saying so, let me take a moment to mention, with your permission, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about, etc.) before saying something substantive. This approach is a distraction for an American listener who is inclined to see this as superficial when, at least at work, the American would prefer to be direct and “get right to the point and down to business.” (It works both ways, of course: to Latin Americans, an American may seem too direct, even rude and self-centered.)

So again remember how the wrong approach can clash with another culture, causing confusion or misunderstanding. Tailor your style to your listener. And understand the tendencies of your own culture to interfere with that goal.

Monday, November 6, 2017


Different cultures conceptualize ideas in different ways, so you must be sure to communicate your point in a style that Americans will readily grasp. Today we’ll talk about how the European pattern conflicts with the American. Succeeding Tips will address other parts of the world.
For American style, think of a single straight arrow, going immediately to the essential point you want to make. Only later would supporting information be added. Like the “outline form” that Americans use when writing, the principal thesis (or topic sentence) is mentioned first, then sub-points follow, to clarify, illustrate or reinforce. Americans can easily follow an explanation in this form.

If you stood the American outline form on its head, you would have the European pattern. Unlike that straight American arrow, it would show the arrow’s shaft bent and veering off in various directions, and only after several such diversions would it finally return to a straight shaft ending in its point.
A European speaker might introduce his subject with this succession of thoughts: 1) “Throughout history we have seen that…  And 2) “Even as recently as the last century, France was the perfect example of…” Then 3) “I am reminded of what the Nobel Laureate XYZ said when he commented… Then “Statistically we see too that…” And FINALLY, “So the conclusion we draw, and my point today is…”

A European audience would listen attentively and appreciatively as they are drawn to the speaker’s point of view. But the American wonders impatiently when the speaker will “get to the point,” may feel a little lost, and might even be put off by the speaker’s “arrogance” as he flaunts his wide-ranging knowledge instead of just saying what he himself thinks!

The reverse happens, of course, when a European listens to an American in the same setting. To the European, an American speaker can seem too abrupt, his point insufficiently substantiated, and his image also “arrogant,” implying that he alone is a sufficient expert to claim this point of view!
So when conveying ideas, remember how the wrong approach can cause confusion, misunderstanding and even personal rejection. Tailor your style to your audience. And understand the tendencies of your own culture to interfere with that pattern.