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May 08

Communicating in a roundabout way

The difference between British and our US colleagues is neatly summed up by roundabouts (or traffic circles, if you’re American) and traffic lights.

Direct or round about? Perhaps the "hamburger" is the answer

Direct or round about? Perhaps the “hamburger” is the answer

A former British Ambassador to Washington hit the nail on the head when he identified this (although I can’t find him credited with this major cultural discovery on the internet). Americans are direct: if you can’t get something straight away you wait until you can go for it. Whereas the British circle around an issue, and politely giving way, to get what they want.

To digress a bit, the carrefour à gyration was a French invention – although their initial adoption was slowed by the Priorité à Droite rule which means that circulating traffic has to yield to traffic entering the roundabout. This rule still applies around the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Nation. Although the roundabout came to Britain in 1906, surprisingly it took sixty years for Frank Blackmore to correct this design flaw. Americans built their first roundabout a year ahead of the British in Columbus Circle, but despite this small head start the use of traffic circles is limited to a few towns such as Aspen, Colorado and Carmel, Indiana (called the Milton Keynes of the US).

When working internationally – whether selling or managing change – you have to avoid the trap of stereotyping and the other extreme of not recognising individual characters. However a recognition of national traits is also essential for communicating and negotiating effectively.

In an artiR1512E_MEYER_COUNTERPART-1024x913cle for the Harvard Business Review “Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da” Erin Meyer recognises a quadrant of four very different norms of communication. One axis is Confrontation, with US on the confrontational side and UK avoiding confrontation  – that’s traffic lights versus roundabouts. The other axis is emotion with Mediterranean countries highly emotionally expressive and colder northern European countries on the unexpressive side.

Meyer gives five rules of thumb for negotiating with someone whose cultural style of communication differs from yours:

  1. Adapt the Way You Express Disagreement
    In some cultures it’s appropriate to say “I totally disagree” or to tell the other party he’s wrong
  2. Know When to Bottle It Up or Let It All Pour Out – raising your voice when excited or laughing passionately
  3. Learn How the Other Culture Builds Trust – Cognitive trust based on more factual evidence of accomplishments, skills, and reliability. This trust comes from the head. Or affective trust arising from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. It comes from the heart.
  4. Avoid Yes-or-No Questions – In some cultures the word “yes” may be used when the real meaning is no. In other cultures “no” is the most frequent knee-jerk response, but it often means “Let’s discuss further.”
  5. Be Careful About Putting It in Writing – American and Northern European managers learn to repeat key messages frequently and recap a meeting in writing. For other cultures documenting a verbal agreement would be a clear signal that “you don’t trust me.”

At the end of the day you have to see the position from the other parties’ point of view and through their cultural spectacles. There is not a single right way in international management. There will often be more than just two nationalities involved. Even with a single nationality traits may differ within the organisation. Does everyone follow the lead of the boss, rely on management by consensus or else depend on vigorous debating of options.

How do you give an effective presentation to a multi-national audience? Should slides be packed with data or just a clear message. As well as national traits, content will need to be modified for an audience of senior management, hard sales people, soft customer care, IT or accountants. The only thing that is certain is that communication styles have to be sensitive to the audience.

These characteristics even extend into areas such as accounting, where you would expect rules would be absolute. Lease classification in America and Germany depends on the strict application of rules – or “bright lines”. British accounting rules are applied on more general principles, even considering the spirit of the terms of the contract.

Circles of Life?

Circles of Life?

As a Brit, I was pleased to see evidence reported in The Economist magazine that my favoured national trait is the safest. There appears to be a strong link between more roundabouts and lower road fatalities. Direct Americans with a fifth of the number of roundabouts per intersection, have five times the number of road fatalities per inhabitant than Britain. France and Australia (with the highest number of roundabouts) somewhat buck the trend (see inset graph). Perhaps it is because of their real national trait of being more confrontational?

Permanent link to this article: http://transformingfinance.eu/communicating-in-a-roundabout-way/