Why You Hate Your British or American Business Partner

By O'Brien Browne with Nick Parry, Co-directors of Open Minds Open Markets

Is what you say what you mean, or is what you don't say what you mean? In seminars and by coaching, my partner Nick Parry and I spend a lot of time explaining to our direct language business clients -- Germans, Swiss Germans, Austrians and Scandinavians -- why they hate us. It's simple: we don't say what we mean. And we mean what we don't say. We like to leave the interpretation of what we are saying to the listener. This coded speech, described as "beating around the bush," being "woolly," vague or indirect always has a deeper second meaning, which unless asked about will be interpreted as being clearly communicated by the person communicating. This drives literal, direct language people -- for whom "yes" means "yes" and "no" means "no" -- crazy.

Coded speech can take different forms, including humor (often called sarcasm if you are on the receiving end), euphemism or understatement.

Some examples include --

Communicated is: ........ Meant is:

Correct me if I'm wrong ........ I'm right
I agree with you up to a point ........ I disagree
I hear what you're saying ........ I disagree
I'll give you a call ........ I won't call
I'll get back to you on it ........ No
Hmm... interesting idea ........ Forget it
I'll do that ASAP ........ The hell I will

Why do Anglos (and most other indirect language peoples) do this? Essentially, because they believe that using direct language or saying "no!" to a business partner closes doors, damps enthusiasm, burns bridges and may damage or even destroy relationships. Thus, they prefer to use euphemisms, a word which comes from the Greek, "to speak favorably." Essentially, this means replacing negative phrases with something more positive. So, "Waiter, my meal is cold" becomes, "Waiter, my meal is not very warm." In the first example, the waiter would feel attacked. When we are attacked we have two choices: strike back or defend ourselves. This, in turn, would result in the waiter saying something like, "Well, it was damn well warm when I brought it" -- which is a perfectly true statement that could create a perfectly destructive conflict that could destroy a business relationship.

In the second example, however, the waiter would not feel attacked and would be able to apologize and reheat the food. Moreover, to "help" the waiter save face, he is often pre-warned about the forthcoming bad news by the person adding the phrase "I'm afraid that..." To direct language people, this could sound as weak, insincere or even untruthful. To indirect language people, however, it is a vital means to preserve a relationship by not "hurting" the other party.

Understatement is a specialty of the British but is shared by the Chinese, Swedish, Japanese, Canadians and many U.S. Americans. It is used to increase the effect of a statement or to indicate modesty, but when it isn't recognized it can lead to great confusion. Thus,

Communicated is: ........ Meant is:

I've seen worse presentations ........ It was great
I'm pretty much a beginner ........ I'm quite good
I've got a bit of a problem ........ Disaster!
I'm doing pretty good ........ I'm suicidal
I have a couple of issues here ........ We have major problems

Anglos and other indirect language cultures expect their counterparts to be able to "read" the signals behind the words: gestures, body language and facial expressions -- which means that relying on e-mail to solve misunderstandings is deadly. But because direct language cultures believe that what you say is what you mean, they focus on words, not non-verbal signals. The trouble is that their Anglo, Asian, Latino, Arab, Indian and several billion other business partners signal what they mean; they won't say it. This subtle difference can cause project delays, postponements, misunderstandings and conflicts that may wreck international partnerships in business, politics and academia -- and all because what is unsaid is of greater importance than what is said.