Just ask

Updated: 2020-03-18 • Notes on cross-cultural communication, and using questions to unstick confusing conversations while you’re on the road.

Cross-cultural communication is hard

“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place,” observes a young character in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, “The Poisonwood Bible.”

When you’re in “another place,” the signal:noise ratio falls through the floor. There are sudden, perplexing holes in all your conversations. You’re under pressure to get the job done. Just when you need to think critically about your own assumptions – you can’t. You’re overwhelmed.

It’s okay to triage. Cross-cultural communication is hard.

Ask questions to navigate through these conversations.

3 simple strategies

  • Ask, don’t assume: e.g., to avoid confusion right now
  • Ask differently: e.g., to make room for new info
  • Ask again: e.g., to avoid confusion later on

“What is felt to be a message in one language does not necessarily survive the translation process. Information is more than words: it is words that fit into a cultural framework. Culturally adequate translation is an undervalued art.”

– Geert Hofstede et al., “Intercultural Encounters,” in Cultures and Organizations: software of the mind. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), 394.

Learning to frame your questions so that they are “culturally adequate” takes practice.

Maybe it’s counter-intuitive but I find that cross-cultural communication can be more challenging when you’re talking in your native language. Culture is just shorthand for the entangled habits you and I share. Out of habit, it is easy to rely on the same phrases, postures, etc. that got you results at home. This problem will get worse if you’re jet lagged or focused on just getting the job done.

Be aware of context

Day-to-day, cultural context isn’t complicated. It is so obvious you take it for granted, and so it is hard to see.

When you’re working across cultures or languages it’s important to think about how you ask questions. (One of my favorite books on this is Erin Meyer’s “The Culture Map.” It’s well-written, practical and a great starting point for learning more about cross-cultural communication at work.)

Your cultural background underpins your personal communication style.1 You get input and feedback for what works starting when you’re a baby. By the time you’re grown, you make inferences about a person’s intentions, based in part on the way that person talks to you. You make day-to-day assumptions about how their communication habits “must” reflect a person’s moral character, reliability, whatever.2

It’s messy. It’s quick. It’s how people work.

Heuristics don’t always travel well. What happens when you aren’t in your day-to-day?

Prep in 3 steps

  1. What do you know about the person you’ll be asking?
  2. What are you assuming with your question?
  3. What’s your goal with this question?

Direct talk will have the opposite effect you want if you are an American in East Asia. The careful posturing that works so well at home won’t have the same appeal in “another place.” You won’t come off as a confident straight shooter. You’ll come off as juvenile, incompetent or hard to work with.

For example, in the United States and parts of Western Europe people generally expect direct talk:

  • You ask me a question, and I give you a blunt answer. Culturally, this signals “honesty.” That’s good!
  • You’ll avoid asking about things that are too personal. That’d be rude because you’d embarrass me – or both of us.

Meanwhile, in NE Asia people don’t read it that way:

  • You ask me a question, and I avoid responding with a straightforward “no.” That’d be rude because I’d embarrass you.
  • You ask about things that are personal but I give you a vague answer. Culturally, this signals “modesty.” That’s good!

Wherever you’re from, you can think of some exceptions to patterns like these. Nevertheless, there are patterns.3 The questions we ask each other are built on top of our cultural expectations about how somebody “should” communicate.

Then, ask in 3 steps

  1. Spend most of your energy listening.
  2. Make space, and wait for an answer.
  3. Keep track of your goal during the conversation.

“The better you know yourself, the better you’re able to hear other people,” says Kate Murphy, the author of “You’re Not Listening: what you’re missing and why it matters.”4

For example: After an taxing conversation, I know that I need to remind myself that I was able to obtain whatever it is I went in there asking about. (That’s number 6 on the above list.) If I didn’t do that, I’d feel like shit about the emotionally-draining conversations I need to have, no matter how productive they really might be.

Ante up

A good question can be a useful tool for building trust.

Frame your question in a way that brings the other person into your own thought process. This might make you feel vulnerable but it won’t leave your listener with the impression that you’re question is unconsidered.

Yes, asking a “dumb” question feels awkward right now. It’s worth that risk because your question is a chance to get better info, to build rapport or – at the very least – a chance to suss out the person you’re querying.

First, you’ll have to ante up and just ask.


Note 1

Read Andy Molinsky’s “Cultural differences are more complicated than what country you’re from,” in HBR for some practical ideas.

Read Tarun Khanna’s “Contextual intelligence,” also in HBR. It isn’t a hard left turn, even though it’ll feel like it when you click. Khanna’s piece will help you start mulling over just how hard it can be to grok culture’s influence over your workaday perception of the world. If you’re anything like me, a clear application to an abstract problem is motivating.

If you have access to an academic library, check out Christine Béal’s paper, “Did you have a good weekend: or, why there is no such thing as a simple question in cross-cultural encounters.” The abstract is available on ResearchGate.

Back ↩

Note 2

“When two actors meet who have different models for recognizing and dealing with these sorts of problems, and when their respective models are backed up in their eyes by some special authority, authenticity, or feeling of rightness that may range all the way from ecclesiastical or sacred morality to self-evident common sense, then we may begin to speak of cultural difference.”

“Notice that culture appears as a sort of optical or perceptual illusion here: although always a presence, it can best be seen when thrown into relief by the quality of difference. For if two actors meet who share the same model or schema for dealing with, say, the power asymmetry evident between them, then culture is invisible, part of and buried in the deepest, and in this case, shared, context of their encounter.”

– Kevin Avruch, Culture and Conflict Resolution. (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace Press, 1998). 58-59.

Back ↩

Note 3

For more on this, start with Meina Liu’s “Verbal communication styles and culture” in Oxford Research Encyclopedias.

Back ↩

Note 4

Kate Murphy interview with Krys Boyd. Quote pulled from 27:26 min into the interview.

Getting into a conversation is like getting into your car: You know you’ve got blind spots – that’s why you use the car’s mirrors. Know what frustrates you. Know what your tender spots are. Knowing yourself will give you a mirror for those conversational blindspots. Know when when to slow down and you can avoid misreading the other person, says Murphy.

Back ↩