These three boys at a government school in a small village in India have dreams of becoming IT engineers or at least landing a government posting rich with bribes. To them, saying NO is impossible because there are a billion others who will say YES no matter how impossible the question is.
One of my favorite stories is of three engineers in a multi shore software development project. The manager has decided to use a new development tool and gets the local team leaders into a conference call. None of them have ever heard of this tool. The manager asks each one of the local team leaders the same question: “Do you have any experience using this new tool?
– Gerd from Germany answers “no”.
– John from the US answers “no but I am sure I can figure it out.”
– Sanjay from India answers “yes, I am very experienced with it, I have delivered an entire release using this tool.”
All of them should have said NO but because of their cultural upbringing, only the German could be precise. He is, after all, a German trained engineer, so no shame in never having heard about this. And the manager better sell him this idea. For now, he was asked a question and he answered it true to the fact.
John was raised in a culture of seeking buy-in and making democratic decisions. He is truthful about his lack of experience but also needs to show his willingness to step up to the task. If he finds any problem with this new tool down the road, he will speak up to demonstrate his expertise.
Sanjay comes from a country of 1 billion where people have more mobile phones than access to toilets. He has made it this far because of his top 1- percent ranking in his studies. He either hails from a wealthy family or had found a sponsor who lifted him out of this social status. The road to his title as team leader in a multi national software company was hard and often lonely. No way a silly question like that one will derail him from knowing that he is better than 99% of this fellow Indians. Combine his self assuredness with the all present attitude in India that things will get done in their own time, he will never say NO.
Apart from not being able to say NO as a survival issue, most Asian cultures are all about ‘saving face’. Saying Yes is what helps you keep you head up in society and is therefore the more acceptable thing to do.
Now add to this an American who has never mastered a foreign language and has no understanding of what it means to move from “donde esta el bano” to having a meaningful discussion. He hears the Japanese speak precise and articulate English. Yet they might be speaking not at all – unless the Japanese has lived abroad his English consists of a large number of phrases that he randomly throws into the conversation to show that he is multilingual and up to the task. Once in a while, the American will ponder the incohesiveness of the discussion and ask for clarification which in turn makes the Japanese even more uncomfortable. Chances are the American will walk away with an agreement that was never offered and thus cannot be sustained.
So how do we say NO and how do we get to YES in a foreign culture? Mostly by showing humility and curiosity, trying to understand their background, reading as much as you can on the country you are headed for, and if possible, seeking advice from someone who has bridged those cultures.
Don’t fall into the easy trap of blaming the others for being lazy and deceitful, most likely their culture would not allow that. Being a curious expat starts at home – understand that your maid cannot admit she does not know how to iron your shirt because she just landed this job and needs it to feed her children. She rides the hot and crowded bus for 1 hr each way after having cooked and cleaned for her own extended family. It is up to you to show her how things are done. After all, would you know how to set the table at Buckingham Palace?
Going to your new office in a foreign country, pretty much the same things apply. While you got there in the back of an a/c chauffeur driven car, had your breakfast in a beautiful expat house, the people in your new team have come on a scooter in terribe traffic, argued with their wife where the money for private school tuition will come from. Yet they will be eager and smart to work with, have animated discussions about their work tasks. If you take the time to listen, they will tell you how much fun life in the glass tower can be.