East Meets West: How To Avoid Confrontation

Most Western, individualist cultures value direct communication to varying degrees. Coming quickly to the point of a conversation or stating your main argument up front is one way Westerners do this. Avoiding vague statements, and not softening your argument with conciliatory phrases, are others. Criticism is sought out, and value is given to constructive, direct, and critical feedback. Even in personal situations, individuals will openly welcome a differing point of view.

Confrontation in the West

“Beating around the bush” is a phrase dating back to the 15th century or earlier. Boar hunting, in particular, was quite dangerous, so noblemen hired workers to walk through the woods beating branches and making noise. The unarmed workers kept a distance from the dense undergrowth, where boars might be hiding, all the while making enough commotion to scare the animals out from cover. This evasive technique was called “beating around the bush,” and today the phrase lives on. It’s used to describe someone who is avoiding the main point in a conversation or failing to get to the bottom line. In other words, “beating around the bush” is something one does to avoid approaching a subject directly. In the West, it’s not a compliment.

In Western cultures today it’s acceptable to challenge a superior. When given instructions, subordinates are expected to critically consider those instructions. If there are doubts or questions, they should be asked. If a subordinate believes there is a better solution, it should be raised immediately. It’s common to hear, “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” “there’s a better way,” or “that won’t work, instead we should…” In more casual work environments, simply, “that’s a bad idea,” or “no way!” might be the reaction a subordinate offers. Naturally, one’s attitude should be positive and solution-oriented, but as long as the employee’s objective is to make the right decision, it’s appropriate. Western societies won’t view this kind of direct confrontation as disrespectful, provided the goal is to solve a problem. Instead, it’s collaborative and solution seeking — usually with the biggest rewards going to the person that makes the biggest contribution.

This makes perfect sense when considered from the perspective of typically Western, American upbringing. Children are raised to tell the truth and to be direct. They are told that “beating around the bush” is just a way of avoiding the truth — it’s considered a sign of weak character. Truth, speaking plainly what’s on your mind, and being concise are highly valued traits instilled from a very young age.

Confrontation in the East

In Eastern, collectivist cultures, direct confrontation is rare. Confrontation does take place but, from the perspective of a Westerner’s direct, individualist style, it’s so subtle it seems like an inefficient waste of time. Unity within the group is intensely important to collectivist culture, as family and professional groups are tightly forged and will often last a lifetime. As a result, confrontation takes place, but only in a way that will not break with the harmony of the group.

In the workplace this manifests itself in how individuals interact. The direct criticism and challenges found in Western cultures do not exist. Throughout much of Asia, the word “no” is considered unacceptably abrupt and simply won’t be used. (Strictly speaking, some Asian languages don’t have a literal translation for “no,” and instead rely on restating a question or statement with verb inflection to indicate negative or positive agreement).

When it comes to expressing disagreement, phrases such as “perhaps you are right,” “we will think about it,” “we will get back to you,” and “I need to discuss this with my superior” are in fact polite refusals. To a Western ear, these statements all sound like agreement and, more than that, a commitment to continue negotiations.

Likewise, “yes” rarely means outright agreement. Instead, it can mean “I heard you” or “I understand you.” It can just as easily mean, “what you said make sense but I don’t agree with it,” (think of the Indian head waggle, which carries a variety of meanings from “Yes,” “Nice to meet you” and “I completely understand what you just said,” to “Maybe,” “I sympathize,” or “Hell no.”)

When working in a cross cultural situation it’s hard not to fall back on our native interpretations of people’s behavior. To an individualist Westerner, “no” simply means “no,” and anything else tends to indicate agreement or at least permission to continue a negotiation. From an Eastern or collectivist perspective, “no” is unacceptably harsh, so more harmonious, subtle methods are used to convey disagreement.

When these two cultures collide, there are dramatic misunderstandings.

Harmony or Confrontation

For the individualist Westerner, watch out if it seems the first meeting went so well, a deal should be signed in no time. Was there really agreement, or are your Eastern partners merely preserving the harmony of the relationship? Listen more carefully to the timing, and reasons given for delays. If you aren’t actually on the same page, your good feelings will soon be replaced by puzzlement, as your partner starts to “beat around the bush,” and ultimately frustration when no deal is forthcoming.

For the collectivist Easterner, remember that being very direct is a virtue in the West, and no offense is meant in such directness. Your loud, impervious partner from the West will be looking for clear reasons that things are not moving forward, otherwise everything can look like a problem that should be “hammered out” and solved. If working together doesn’t seem to make sense, directly saying so is respected. This avoids wasting everyone’s time, and that will be appreciated. On the other hand, if you extend any suggestion that working together may be possible it’s likely to be taken as an invitation to continue talking, negotiating, and closing in on a deal.

In situations where the lines are less clearly drawn, remember that the subtle, harmonious way an Easterner indicates disagreement can often be construed as deference to a Westerner. It’s best for both parties to be very clear. Making unambiguous statements such as, “I will deliver the report by tomorrow,” or, “I don’t have the information I need to work on this,” leaves little room for misunderstanding.