This is crap | An intercultural competence activity

This activity is based on an article by Erin Meyer titled How to say “this is crap” in different cultures. Meyer recycles some material from an old Internet meme about British-Dutch cultural differences. Nevertheless, it demonstrates differences in how people convey feedback linguistically quite well.

intercultural feedback

Image attribution: Meeting by Howard Jefferson | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

Objective 

Raise awareness of the cultural gap caused by direct vs. indirect approaches to giving feedback  and allow learners an opportunity to discuss ways of mitigating risks arising from these differences

Materials

Make copies of and cut up the table titled ‘Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’ in this article. You don’t need to use the entire table as participants might take too long to unjumble it. Select four rows that your learners might find interesting.

Procedure

  • Board the phrase “this is absolute crap” and ask participants if they would ever use this phrase while giving feedback to a colleague about some work they’ve done. Ask them to discuss the reasons for their response with a partner.
  • As you take whole class feedback, you’ll find some participants articulating a softer response such as “this is sort of what I was looking for”. Board these.
  • Derive that some cultures are more explicit or direct in communicating feedback.
    • Upgraders: These direct cultures tend to use upgraders such as absolutely, strongly, or totally before negative feedback to strengthen it such as “This is absolutely inappropriate”. In these cultures, “this is absolute crap” may be perceived as acceptable.
  • Point out that other cultures are more implicit or indirect as perhaps with the utterances shared by the participants for softening the message.
    • Downgraders: These indirect cultures tend to use downgraders such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe and slightly to soften the blow. They might also use a type of downgrader called an understatement such as “We are not quite there yet”.
  • Ask participants to categorize some national cultures based on whether they are relatively direct or indirect (bear in mind that indirect cultures like India often perceive themselves as more or less direct).
  • Board participants’ suggestions and circle the UK & the Netherlands.
  • Signpost the cutouts and state that the cutouts belong under three headers: What the British say, What the British mean, and What the Dutch understand. Ask participants to work in groups to put them in the right categories.
  • Get participants to identify the gap between what is being said/meant and what is understood and the problems this might create.

Action planning

  • Ask participants to think about the kind of culture they come from – indirect/direct – and consider their own personal orientation to giving feedback. Do they use upgraders or downgraders?
  • Have them imagine a situation where they are working with someone who has a different preference to feedback than them, what could they do to ensure that they are not misunderstood or don’t end up damaging the business relationship.

Reference: Meyer, E., How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures in the Harvard Business Review, Feb 2014.

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