Workout Objective: Understand why the recommended quiz answers result in the most effective communication style for US business culture.
Prerequisite: Complete the Interpersonal Communication Style Quiz
Recommended Frequency: Just once
- Find the questions that your answers differed with, and read through the explanations.
- List on a piece of paper the three things you will do differently when you communicate, based on your new understanding.
- Share your action plan with someone who can hold you accountable.
- Add your comments and additional questions in the comment section.
Note: After doing the interpersonal communication quiz, one member commented — “In some cultures (i.e. Navajo-Native American), it is accepted that the person never looks at the speaker in one on one conversations. In certain American regional cultures, if you are not looking at their eyes, you are not interested in the discussion, but in others, you are threatening.” Different cultures will recommend different things. This is just what is recommended in mainstream US business culture.
Basic Interpersonal Etiquette
Cultural differences and shyness sometimes lead a person to choose a less effective style…
1. When I first meet someone,
- I wait for the other person to make the introduction first.
- I introduce myself with a smile and offer a handshake.
- I hug the person.
Recommended Answer is b – I hope this answer is fairly obvious. In business, success is dependent on who you know as much as what you know. If you always wait for other people to introduce themselves first, then you may miss out on opportunities to meet new people who could later help you in your career.
Answer B helps you be proactive in engaging with others, so they can get to know you — an important first step in any positive interaction. Answer C would be uncomfortable in any business situation, as the other person doesn’t know you at all. It’s hard for them not to feel awkward if you met them for the first time and tried to go in for a hug.
2. When speaking with others
- I try to equalize my participation in the conversation.
- I usually do most of the talking.
- I usually let the other person do most of the talking.
Recommended Answer is a – Answer b is less effective, because if you do most of the talking, you may be dominating too much of the conversation. That will come across as less-than-engaging. The listener could get bored, or think you are arrogant or too self-focused.
It may be tempting to think answer c is best, as that means you are showing interest in what the other person is saying. However, it’s also less effective, as that person may feel heard, but they may not leave with a strong impression of you. Remember, a good rule of thumb for great interpersonal communication is to be interesting and interested. For both to happen, you need to equalize your participation in the conversation.
3. In conversations,
- I frequently use courtesy words and phrases – “thank you, please, sorry.”
- I occasionally use courtesy words and phrases.
- I never use courtesy words and phrases.
Recommended Answer is b: It should be pretty obvious why answer c is not right, as any business culture require some level of courtesy. But you may ask why answer a is not the most effective style? The reason is overly using polite words can be perceived as a sign of weakness in the US culture. Sometimes I see people, especially Asians, say more courtesy words than is necessary. I was born in China, so I know this is because we were taught that it’s always best to be more polite and deferential to authority. This is, unfortunately, not the case in the US. For example, if you frequently say sorry in conversations, you can start to build a negative reputation as someone who is often at fault or can be easily picked on. Both impression put you at a disadvantage in your career. So, it’s important to understand when to use courtesy words and when not to.
Core Communication Style
4. When starting a conversation, I usually
- “warm-up” new conversations with small talk.
- avoid small talk and jump into more important matters.
- avoid starting conversations.
Recommended answer is a: I usually “warm-up” new conversations with small talk. Most people answer either a or b to this question. The reason answer a is recommended is because “small talk” can help break the ice, build a relaxed atmosphere for more conversation, and potentially build personal rapport with your new audience. “Small talk” can be about the weather, sports, stock market, news you heard this morning, etc. Usually you want to find something that you think is the most relevant to the people you are speaking with.
Some people, especially foreigners from Asian countries, can make the mistake of thinking that making “small talk” will make them seem less serious, and therefore should be avoided. In American culture, this is not true, because those who know how to use the right “small talk” to help everyone relax will be more likely to be heard. I believe in the US, business people usually expect 2-3 minutes of “small talk” to ease into the conversation. This is why when I coach foreign business professionals on how to be more effective in the American business culture, I usually recommend that they keep up with some current events outside of work, so they can start or join “small talks” in a business conversation naturally.
5. When I discuss a topic
- I tend to talk about and focus on positive (good) aspects.
- I tend to talk about and focus on the negative (bad) aspects.
- I tend to complain.
Recommended Answer is a: This is, again, potentially because of cultural differences — I spent about 15 years in Asia and over 20 years in the US, so I can comment a bit on the cultural differences I have seen. In America, business professionals are more likely to respond positively if you deliver the message in a positive manner, such as positioning an unexpected negative outcome as an opportunity, and always ending on a positive note.
In Asia, on the other hand, business professionals may view telling you about the “negative” aspects as being more honest, and so they are doing their job by warning you of the worst case scenario. This approach may have good intentions, but I have found it to be less effective in the US.
6. While listening,
- I tend to be distracted by things going on around me.
- I listen for meaning and ask questions.
- I listen intently and I don’t ask questions, as it would be impolite.
Recommended answer is b: It should be obvious why answer a is not the right answer. Answer b and c can come down to cultural differences. In Asia, where the business culture is much more hierarchical, it may be considered rude if you ask questions while listening. Whereas in the US, professionals will view you as thorough, engaged, and proactive if you ask questions while listening.
7. While conversing
- I tend to interrupt before the other person is done speaking to show my excitement for the subject.
- I wait until the other person is done speaking before I speak.
- I try to talk as little as possible.
Recommended answer is b. This is pretty obvious, but sometimes difficult to do. When we are nervous to show that we know what we are talking about, really excited about a subject, or rushing to finish on time, we tend to start talking before the other person finishes his sentence. Depending on the other person’s style, this can be considered as either no big deal, or very rude. Ultimately, it’s just more respectful to wait until the other person is done speaking.
8. When I disagree with a person,
- I listen first, ask questions for clarification, then disagree non-judgmentally.
- I quickly point out the person is wrong and why.
- I say little or nothing.
Recommended answer is a. You may think that this is the obvious right answer, but I used to think that answer b is the right approach. I used to be an engineer, and in that field the answers are black and white — either the circuits that I built worked, or they didn’t. I used to look at everything that way. If I was in a discussion and I found a flaw in their argument, I would be quick to point out why they were wrong.
This win-lose attitude can be detrimental to your relationships and communication effectiveness, however. Nobody wants to be told that they are wrong, even if they are. Keep in mind that business is one big gray area, with no clear right or wrong answers. Communicating only why you disagree, without passing judgment as to who is right or wrong, will keep your tone constructive. It will also help you build, instead of destroy, relationships. This is key, as good relationships are essential to supporting a successful career.
Non-verbal Communication Etiquette
While what you say and how you say it are important, how you communicate non-verbally with your face and body also has a significant impact on how someone perceives you, and whether they will stay engaged in the conversation. As you will see, in American business culture, non-verbal communication etiquette is all about balance.
9. While conversing,
- I make eye contact.
- I sometimes make eye contact.
- I never make eye contact.
Recommended answer is b: In American business culture, eye contact is expected; otherwise you may seem like you are hiding something, you’re shy, or disinterested. With that said, constant eye contact can also unnerve the person you are speaking with, as constant eye contact can easily become a stalker stare. Again, balance is key: you should make eye contact intermittently to keep engaged with the other person.
10. When I am listening to the other person,
- I often cross my arms over my chest.
- I often lean back and turn my body away from the speaker.
- I often lean slightly forward and face my body toward the speaker.
Recommended answer is c: This style may be culturally universal. I think most of us would agree that crossing my arms over my chest is perceived as a defensive, closed up posture. Leaning back and turning my body away from the speaker is usually construed as being uninterested in the conversation.
11. When I’m in a group,
- I tend to frown a lot.
- I tend to smile and use humor at appropriate times.
- I tend to be serious.
Recommended answer is b. Similar to question 1 above, it is important to smile occasionally, to keep the conversation friendly and engaging. Use humor only if you feel comfortable doing so. Appropriate humor is important, as a joke that is not funny will create an awkward silence. On the other hand, a joke that is too colorful can also create unease.
As we discussed before, some people may think that it is important to be serious in a group-business setting to show that you are focused. This is unfortunately not true. Business conversations can get boring quickly if you are too serious. In the US, people will listen better to someone who can be animated in their discussions.
Social Communication at Work
You may wonder — what does social communication have to do with my career success? A lot, actually. People tend to like working with others that are similar to them and respectful of them. Even though work is about your performance, it is also about how well you can get along with others.
This last section can be especially important to foreigners working in the US. There are many aspects of the American culture that take time to learn and understand. The more you can understand it, the more effective and successful you can be in the American business world.
12. When a co-worker discuss a non-work related topic at work (e.g. sport game, TV show),
- I politely leave the conversation.
- I listen or join in the conversation.
- I tell his boss that this co-worker is not working hard enough.
Recommended answer is b. Socializing is a normal part of work. Of course, you still need to get your work done, but on top of that, you need to spend time getting to know your co-workers and boss on a personal level. The best way to relate is to find common interests or hobbies to discuss or participate in. People like to promote people they like. Just doing good work alone is not enough. It’s not fair but it’s reality.
13. If a co-worker has put on weight,
- I say nothing about it.
- I tell the person that he or she has changed in appearance.
- I honestly tell the person that he or she looks fat.
Recommended answer is a. While it’s important to be social at work, it is also important to know which subjects are too sensitive to talk about. These may include weight, age, or religion. It’s important to remember that no one in America likes to hear negative comments about themselves, even if they are true. It is considered offensive, and will definitely harm any good relationship that you may have with the person. This may seem obvious to some, but for some foreigners, it is not so obvious.
For example, whenever I visit my birth country, China, my relatives are always quick to point out how “chubby” or “strong” I look. (I am a size 2 or 4 in the US). While my American self feels offended, my Chinese self reminds me that they do this for two reasons:
- Chinese people are very direct when they communicate. Weight is not a taboo topic in China, as most people are actually underweight.
- In the 1960s, there was a mass famine in China. Since then, anyone who looks chubby or strong is considered well off. In other words, Chinese people use this comment as a compliment, to acknowledge that you are well-to-do.
By contrast, many people in the US are worried about being overweight, so you can easily hurt their feelings if you tell them that they look heavier, or have had a change in appearance.
As you can see, cultural differences can impact your communication style and your career success. If you ever travel and work in a different country than the one you were born in, it is important to invest time to understand the business culture of the country you are operating in, and adapt your communication style accordingly.
The moral of the story: it is important to invest time to socialize at work to build informal bridges and build a favorable reputation. If you are a foreigner working in the US, it is important to know what topics are sensitive to Americans and what are the appropriate responses without being too blunt or uninterested. The best way to really learn this is to immerse yourself in American culture outside of work – watch American TV, make American friends, and go to parties that are outside of your ethnic group. You will then learn what the norms are in American culture for a casual environment, and thus learn how to better socialize at work.
I have lived in America for more than 20 years no, but I still remember some sense of culture shock from when I first came here. For example, when people say “Let’s do lunch soon,” and then never follow up to arrange it, it is not out of disrespect. People actually like to say these phrases as a way of saying “see you later.” It’s not a promise, as I originally thought, so don’t take offense. If you want to do lunch with them, just set it up yourself. It took me a good 5 to ten years before I felt “Americanized,” so be patient with yourself.
Your comments: Are any of the recommended answers or explanations a surprise to you? If so, why? Add your comments below and let’s have a discussion.
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I am always in your corner. Best wishes to your career success.