You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.
You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.
There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.
What Drives Western Cultures?
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington
Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.
Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.
To put it simply, the cards are on the table.
What Drives Eastern Cultures?
“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius
Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.
There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.
Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.
But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.
For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.
While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.
The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.
East vs. West Communication
If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.
Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.