2022-05-15 🍵 Notes on how I'm using questions to have better cross-cultural conversations.
“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place,” observes the youngest 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. The simplest transactions start to feel absurdly complex. It is exhausting. Meanwhile, you’re under pressure to get the job done.
It’s okay to triage. Cross-cultural communication is hard.
I’ve been trying to use dumb questions to improve my conversations. First, I want to question my own assumptions. I want to channel the unstoppable, obnoxious energy of a 3-year-old who always has time for 1 last, ego-shredding, “Why?” Ask yourself often enough and it begins to feel like a Zen koan. Yes but why!
Second, I want to ask questions even when it feels like the answer is obvious to others. Something I’ve learned from therapists and journalists is that questions can be used to learn more about the person you’re talking with and their assumptions. And, if I’m having a really good day, asking these “obvious” questions provides me with deeply-layered answers to questions I haven’t even realized I’d need to ask.
Some heuristics don’t travel well
Day-to-day, cultural context is so obvious you and I take it for granted. It is hard to see. What happens when you aren’t in your day-to-day? Here are 3 situations that can still get me into trouble, despite decades of practice:
- Stress. When I’m anxious, I label people’s actions based on patterns that only matter in my own culture – or in my own head. Beware the false positive.
- On the job. When I’m laser-focused, I ignore those pesky assumptions out on the periphery but I know better. Beware the red mist before the deadline.
- Tired. When I’m sick or jet lagged or just logy, my mind desperately wants the comfort of routine. Beware the cozy cocoon.
The solution I use to try to deal with these situations is the same. I ask a lot more questions about myself, about what I know.
Because many of the heuristics I rely on are not reliable navigation tools in this new cultural environment, everything takes more time. For the same reason, I find even little things can feel tiring. It’s like being at altitude. It’s like being out in the extreme heat, or the extreme cold. And my instincts scream, “stop this, it’s too much,” but I shush them and push on. Keep a steady pace. It can be done.
Culturally adequate questions
When you’re working across cultures or languages it’s important to think about how you ask questions.
“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,” Cultures and Organizations: software of the mind. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), 394.
After I moved back to the US, I learned that Americans’ reputation for blunt talk is true. Usually. Acclimatization took a few years, and some awkward conversations.
In my experience, this pattern is well-represented between both men and women. It feels most obvious in business talk. Questions delivered this way work well, too. Usually.
“In my experience…” But who are you?
Communication is a group activity. Your assumptions of yourself are overlayed with assumptions made about you by others, by the community around you. You are stretched and shifted like a reflection on the back of a steel spoon.
For example, in North America and parts of Western Europe people have expectations about direct talk:
- You ask me a question, and I give you a specific 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 these situations that way:
- You ask me a question, and I avoid responding with a simple “no.” That’d be rude because I’d embarrass you.
- You ask about things that are personal but expect me to give you a vague answer. Culturally, this signals my “modesty.” That’s good!
Wherever you’re from, you can think of some exceptions to patterns like these. Nevertheless, there are patterns. The questions we ask each other are built on top of our cultural expectations about how somebody “should” communicate.
What works so well in one community won’t have the same appeal in “another place.” The social signals for “confident” or “trustworthy” might be different here. You might come off as childish, incompetent or hard to work with.
In this triage context, I’ve learned that I will confuse myself by asking, “what signals am I sending?” It’s more productive to ask, “what signals are being scanned for?” Framing the question this way gives you options to choose a route forward.
It won’t be perfect; it doesn’t need to be perfect. Navigate by dead-reckoning. Adjust course as needed. You will get there.
Last updated: 2022-05-15