What people say versus what they mean

Intercultural communication

One of the challenges of cross cultural communication is understanding mixed messages. Only a very few cultures in the world will say exactly what they are thinking (Germans being one of them, and to an extent, Americans, Scandinavians, Dutch and Australians). Elsewhere, particularly in Asian and Arab cultures, what a person says often bears no relation to what they really mean.

In cultures where ‘face’, and maintaining harmony are important, an individual will usually tell you what they think you want to hear, regardless of whether it is correct, to avoid embarrassment. As a visitor, you need to change your own way of communicating, which means constant concentration.


Last week, on a visit to India, I asked my tour guide, “Will we be able to see the Himalayas from where we’re going today?” “Yes,” he said immediately, when it soon became clear that there would be no such view, due to the haze. What I should have asked is: “Which are the best months of the year for spotting the Himalayas from here?”


In Japanese culture, giving a straight ‘no’ is a sure-fire way of losing face, and of causing the other party to lose face. Responses are also affected by wider issues, such as the relationship, the hierarchy and the desire to maintain the status quo. So if you say, for example, “Are we in agreement over this deadline?” and your Japanese counterparts are not actually in agreement at all, they are likely to fall silent, suck air through their teeth and say, “We will study the situation”, or “We will do our best”, which effectively means ‘no’.


In China, too, negative answers are usually vague. The closest you will get to a direct ‘no’ is “It’s not convenient”, which generally means the person feels quite strongly against the idea. It is important to understand what a response like “We will think about it” means; it means, effectively, “We’re not interested” so there is little point following up with calls and emails as the matter is closed. If you do follow up, your counterpart will most likely give vague excuses and avoid you.


Arab cultures, too, place value on saving face, although their communication style is slightly different. It is often easier to detect enthusiasm for your suggestion as your Arab colleague may interrupt you with questions (a good sign), or use flattery, metaphor and elaborate language, but they may still be evasive in providing an answer to a direct question. Even if the answer is ‘yes’, you should really not interpret that as any more than ‘possibly’.


Some of the worst offenders in giving mixed messages are in cultures that favor direct communication, the British being a case in point. In Britain, there is a tendency to say the exact opposite of what is meant. If someone says in a meeting, “That’s an interesting idea,” its subtext is usually “I don’t like that idea at all.” Starting a sentence with “With respect,” usually means “Actually, I completely disagree with you”. And when an American says “Let’s do lunch”, you should probably interpret the ‘offer’ as “I don’t want to see you again.” Sad, but true.

What’s the answer?

  • Study your counterpart’s body language carefully.
  • Learn their non-verbal cues.
  • Make yourself aware of their communication style before entering negotiations.
  • Focus on building your relationship with them.
  • Never take anything literally.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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