How different cultures say “I disagree”

August 22, 2013
August 22, 2013

There are times in business when we disagree but expressing disagreement comes more easily to some cultures than to others.

Germans disagree openly, considering it to be the most honest way. Americans and Finns are also admirably frank and direct. French people disagree openly, but politely. In the East Asian cultures, open disagreement is taboo—indeed most Asians are nervous about it. British people also dislike open conflict and use various instances of coded speech to soften their opposition in conversation.

The examples below indicate how ways of expressing disagreement may be affected by Swedish love of consensus, Chinese fondness for ambiguity, Italian indirectness, Japanese concern about loss of face, American cynicism, Swiss correctness, Filipino deference to superiors, Brazilian cheerfulness, and Finnish humorous reticence.

  • I don’t agree (German)
  • I’m afraid I don’t share your opinion (French)
  • I agree, up to a point (British)
  • Let’s agree to disagree (British)
  • We agree (Japanese)
  • We agree if all of us agree (Swedish)
  • We agree and disagree at the same time (Chinese)
  • Have another cup of coffee (Finnish)
  • I agree with you, but I don’t think my board of directors will (Swiss)
  • You gotta be kidding (US)
  • You are the boss (Filipino)
  • I suppose anything’s possible (Brazilian)
  • Let’s go and have a Campari and talk about it tomorrow (Italian)

If your aim is to further your own business interests, then a good staring point is to try to view the situation from the other person’s cultural perspective. This will help you to understand and connect with other cultures on their terms. Through this you may find that it will be much easier to find common ground and create win-win situations.

Every culture believes it defines normality, and thus, viewing yourself through their lens is both respectful and often illuminating. However, this does not mean that you should accept everything. All cultures have values that are sacrosanct and difficult, if not, impossible to impact. Americans’ belief in individualism and the Asian belief in harmony are two such beliefs.

This article is an adapted excerpt published with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from FISH CAN’T SEE WATER: How National Culture Can Make Or Break Your Corporate Strategy by Kai Hammerich and Richard D. Lewis. Copyright © 2013. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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