A Mexican Executive And A Chinese Worker Totally Misread Each Other In This Conversation

INSEAD professor Erin Meyer discussesin “The Culture Map“how some cultures speak in more explicit and “low-context” terms while other speak in more implicit and “high-context” terms.

Toward the implicit/high-context extreme you’ve got the Chinese.

Somewhere in the middle you’ve got the Mexicans.

(On the explicit/low-context extreme you’ve got Americans.)

Meyer got the perfect example of a communication gap from consultant Elizabeth Shen, who interviewed foreign managers working in China. One person she talked to was Pablo Díaz, a Mexican executive who worked in China for a Chinese textile company for 15 years.

“In China, the message up front is not necessarily the real message,” Díaz said. “My Chinese colleagues would drop hints, and I wouldn’t pick them up. Later, when thinking it over, I would realise I had missed something important.”

Case in point, this conversation:

Mr. Díaz: It looks like some of us are going to have to be here on Sunday to host the client visit.

Mr. Chen: I see.

Mr. Díaz: Can you join us on Sunday?

Mr. Chen: Yes, I think so.

Mr. Díaz: That would be a great help.

Mr. Chen: Yes, Sunday is an important day.

Mr. Díaz: In what way?

Mr. Chen: It’s my daughter’s birthday.

Mr. Díaz: How nice. I hope you all enjoy it.

Mr. Chen: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.

“I was quite certain he had said he was coming,” Díaz said. “And Mr. Chen was quite certain he had communicated that he absolutely could not come because he was going to be celebrating his daughter’s birthday with his family.”

Díaz learned from this experience that it’s his responsibility to ask multiple times for clarification to understand what his workers really mean.

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