How to deal with a colleague who can’t say no, and other tips

In some countries, saying no is rude, so you may not be able to count on a co-worker’s “yes.” Communicating globally may require adapting to many similar differences. — Illustration by Christina Chung/The New York Times
In some countries, saying no is rude, so you may not be able to count on a co-worker’s “yes.” Communicating globally may require adapting to many similar differences. — Illustration by Christina Chung/The New York Times

NEW YORK, July 31 — When I worked as a global media coordinator for the United Nations several years ago, I organised biweekly conference calls, during which I would ask my colleagues around the world to provide information by particular deadlines. My colleagues almost always responded with a resounding yes, but all too often, the deadlines came and went without the requested material, leaving me bewildered and upset.

Finally, my South African boss had to explain what would never have occurred to me: In many cultures, it is rude to say no. So some people would say yes to anything I asked, regardless of whether they had any intention of delivering.

If communicating internally at the United Nations was challenging, interacting with the outside world was even harder. How would we reach people in places where newspapers and televisions are still not widely available? How could we generate media coverage in countries where unpaid or underpaid reporters expect “brown envelopes” (full of cash) in exchange for stories?

Communicating globally may require changing the way you interact with both your colleagues and your target audiences. For a book, I spent a year interviewing senior communication professionals in 31 countries about how they help clients modify their messages and strategies for particular cultures.

I have found that some of the biggest factors to consider when communicating in a new culture involve emotion, context, conceptions of time and social expectations.

As an example of emotional differences, if I were to do a media interview in the United States and become visibly angry at a reporter’s question, I would be seen as unstable. By contrast, in the Middle East, emotional responses are often expected to emotional questions. If you stay cool and calm while discussing a heated issue, you may be viewed as untrustworthy.

Another big cultural difference revolves around the level of “context” provided in a conversation. As an American, I am what is known as a low-context communicator, so if I want something done, I say so bluntly and directly. By contrast, in high-context cultures, as in Asia, people may communicate more subtly. You have to pick up on body language and other contextual cues to realise that your colleague who just said yes to you has actually communicated that she does not agree to your plan.

One of the cultural differences that people find most difficult to cope with is conceptions of time. When I worked in the Obama administration as a spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department, I once flew with a senior official from Washington to Africa to meet with a head of state. When we arrived for the scheduled meeting, the president was not in the office.

My boss was furious because in “monochronic” cultures such as the United States, it is expected that people will be prompt and deadlines will be met. However, in “polychronic” cultures, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, plans are less firm and are constantly changing.

It is also critical to understand local social expectations in different cultures. For example, an executive for a large public relations firm in Chile told me that citizens there expect organisations to explain how their work and presence in the country benefits “Mrs. Juanita” — a Chilean term for the average person.

As for those brown envelopes that poorly paid journalists may expect, one way to get around that is by offering meals at events and press briefings. Transportation may also be offered. When I traveled to Togo with a senior US government official who addressed the country’s Parliament, our embassy’s communication officer drove around the capital city of Lomé in a van picking up reporters to attend the speech because otherwise many of them would not have gone.

A good way to understand expectations in different communities is to make friends with local influencers. In the United States, we tend to think of influencers as Hollywood or media celebrities, but in other countries, they may also be imams, the cool kids in a particular township or the village chiefs.

The head of a public relations firm in Malaysia told me that before working in communities there, he would organise a jamuan — a Malay word for a feast — by inviting about 10 villagers to dinner at a local restaurant. In exchange for food, they answered his questions about how he could best promote his telecommunications client in the local community. If these influencers are willing to evangelise for you, you will gain local credibility. In many of the most rural parts of the world, they are the most effective (and sometimes still the only) channels of communication.

I have witnessed firsthand and heard from experts how people from other cultures can take differing paths to achieve similar goals. So today, when I consult for the United Nations and other clients, I no longer ask my colleagues to meet my deadlines. Instead, I ask what it is possible for them to do, and what they think will work best in their country or culture. — The New York Times

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