In the previous four articles I encouraged you to explore intercultural trust from a variety of angles. I suggested specific actions you could take to cultivate, evaluate and inspire intercultural trust. This fifth and final article on trust is about how to ensure you are making clear requests and promises.
The foundation on which trust is built or broken is the speech act of promises. Cultures have varying degrees of rigor about the consequences of broken promises. However, regardless of your culture, the expectation is that if a promise is made it will be kept. While that seems straightforward enough, several problems arise when working across cultures. One is that opinions about whether a promise was completed satisfactorily, or not, vary between cultures. Another problem is that sometimes a promise is listened when a promise was never actually made.
The Basic Elements of a Complete and Clear Request
Before examining those issues, let’s begin by looking at the components of a complete and clear request that results in a clear promise.
Are Your Requests this Complete?
I’ll provide a simple example to demonstrate these four components of a complete and clear request and promise.
A person who is chairing a meeting in English asks another person attending the meeting to take notes for him. He assesses that this person, who is new to the intercultural team, has the best English as a second language skills, and so chooses him to take notes. The chairman specifies that each person be named each time they speak and that what he or she says is recorded in as much detail as possible. He also asks that the person transcribe those notes using a particular Microsoft Word document format that he will provide at the end of the meeting. The transcription is to be completed and sent to him by email before 4 pm that day. He also requests that it be spell checked, contain no partial sentences or bullet points and be written in simple English. He also tells the person that if they do not feel up to the task they are free to decline and he will ask someone else.
The person being asked says, “Yes, I will gladly write the meeting report if I can have until tomorrow morning at 9 am.” The chairman says yes to that alternative deadline. At that point a binding promise has been clearly made between them. In such a scenario there is little possibility for miscommunication due to lack of clarity.
How does this example sound to you? When was the last time you heard such a clear and complete request, followed by a clearly stated option to decline and finally a counter-offer? Mostly such requests are made this way: “Can you please take notes at the meeting and get them to me ASAP?” To which the listener responds, “Sure, no problem.”
What Is the Problem With Incomplete Requests?
There are several things wrong with such an incomplete and unclear request and promise. With no specific direction of what standards for ‘taking notes’ the speaker has in mind, the person saying ‘yes’ does not really know what they are promising to do. Will they use the same format as the one that is expected? Are they competent to be able to take the detailed notes that are expected? Are they competent to write the report in full sentences, in simple English? Do they have a full load of other work to do that makes it impossible to deliver the notes quickly? Besides, what ‘ASAP’ means varies wildly between cultures. To North Americans it means right away. To other cultures it can mean many hours or even days. When cultures mix, they all bring their own standards to business communications and to what short deadlines mean.
When none of those parameters are explicitly stated, and the notes do not meet the requestor’s expectations of what, where, when and how, who will be held responsible? In fact, we rarely hold the requestor responsible. We usually blame the person making the promise for ‘not keeping their promise.’ So even if the notes are delivered in a timely manner and meet the promisor’s standards, this will often be considered as ‘not soon enough’ or ‘not good enough’ by the requestor. Then he or she may fall into the linguistic trap of generalizing: “I can’t trust this person to do a good job.”
Another thing to be aware of is that within certain cultures it is considered inappropriate to decline directly by saying ‘no.’ In some cultures, ‘yes’ is actually employed to mean ‘I understand your request’ rather than ‘I will fulfill it.’ In such a case there is even more confusion and mistrust. The requestor insists he heard a promise. The other person insists no promise was ever made. Also, if the person being asked does not feel competent to fulfill the task and yet does not feel free to decline, it is really a no-trust situation for everyone concerned.
Establishing Standards for Requests and Promises Saves Time and Builds Intercultural Trust
When I introduce the topic of making clear requests and promises in such a detailed way during my seminars, I get two predictable objections. One is: “But Sherwood, how much extra time will it take to say all that, or write all that, every time I want someone to do something for me?” The fact is that you can actually save time. How much time do you think is wasted in business every day by people having to redo work that is not ‘up to standards’? But whose standards? And were those standards ever clearly defined?
Also, what I see repeatedly when people make requests and promises by email, is that two, three or even more emails are exchanged to determine who, what, where and when. Unfortunately, even with multiple emails, clarifying standards is rarely addressed. If all that had been included in the first email, how much time would that alone have saved?
Another objection I hear is: “Don’t you run of the risk of insulting the listener by including all that detail?” I know that in some cultures stating what is obvious is not well regarded. People from such cultures may be inclined to take this as a personal affront of some kind. However, that can be avoided if within your intercultural business context you establish the criteria for making clear requests and promises, which everyone follows. Then no one can interpret this form of requesting and promising as a commentary on them personally. Besides, by establishing common standards everyone knows exactly what to do and all involved are asked to adapt equally.
I want to add that what I have suggested here is not a standard Anglophone way of making requests and promises. Indeed, native English speakers have as much to learn about making clear requests and promises within intercultural business contexts as everyone else.
In short, taking the time up front to establish standards for making requests and promises within a team or department, or even company-wide, is not only efficient but helps build trust. People request and promise with more clarity and confidence, and experience less fear and frustration.
A client recently told me a story about how she had to redo a PowerPoint presentation three times because the person requesting it did not spell out exactly what she wanted the first or second time. Only by the third time was it clear what exactly what was required and expected of her, based on the cultural standards of the person making the request. She had had this experience repeatedly with this particular manager, and she felt extremely frustrated and hadn’t known what to do about it. Perhaps you have encountered similar situations at work. I hear such stories often. Here’s my perspective on it, which emphasizes our human similarities, rather than our cultural differences.
What All Cultures Share in Common
Thanks to my seminars and business consulting in Canada and France, involving thousands of people from a variety of cultures and languages, I have noticed things that many of us share in common. For example, we believe that our way of conducting business communications (i.e. meetings, reports, presentations, emails etc.) is the ‘right’ way. We also believe that how we make requests and promises is the ‘right’ way to request and promise. Our expectation is that people from other cultures know what that way is. And when they do it ‘wrong,’ who do we blame? We sometimes blame ourselves but we all have a tendency to blame others for breakdowns in communication. We blame others for not adapting to our way of doing things. We accuse others of being incompetent. We generalize that others cannot be trusted. I have seen these linguistic tendencies repeatedly with clients and seminar participants in multiple languages.
I am not saying we all do this deliberately or with malicious intent. Indeed, most of us of are not even aware of what we are doing in the domain of communication. We all have what I call intercultural communication blind spots. In my seminars about communicating across cultures I devote several hours, and six individual and group exercises, to help participants master requests and promises for their particular intercultural business context. Obviously, I can’t replicate all that in this article. However, here are some simple suggestions to get you started.
Revisit How You Make Requests and Promises
Rather than blame someone for not fulfilling a request ‘your’ way, instead ask yourself, “Have I been as clear and complete in my request as I could have been?” Also, when you are wrongly accused of not keeping your promise or not meeting the person’s expectations, ask yourself, “Did I ask all the questions necessary to be clear about what was expected of me before I said yes? Did I know I wasn’t competent to do what was being asked of me but did not feel free to say no? Could I have made a counter-offer that would have made it easier for me to keep my promise?”
Both when requesting and when promising you can take greater responsibility for clarity. You can learn from your miscommunications and commit to practicing how to make more complete and clearer requests and promises in the future.
The fact is, few of us, in any culture, have been taught how to make clear requests and promises. However, because within our native cultures and languages we share similar standard practices, requesting and promising seems easier. Therefore, none of us are in the habit of being as specific as we need to be when communicating across cultures. These are habits we can build individually or collectively by practicing to request and promise more clearly in order to deepen intercultural trust.
There is nothing to lose and lots to gain by improving our skills in these two pivotal speech acts of requests and promises. I am convinced that without the understanding that comes from clarity, there can be no genuine trust. And without trust there is no future, since we build our future together in the requests and promises we exchange today.