I was supposed to be coaching a French automotive executive and his wife for their upcoming move to Wuhan, China. The Chinese country expert assisting me, a 36-year-old Paris-based journalist from Wuhan, was articulate, extroverted, and very knowledgeable. Bo Chen’s job was to prepare two or three concrete business examples to illustrate each cultural issue I’d be covering.
I began the session by outlining the cultural issues that the Bernards needed to grasp about doing business in China, while keeping an eye on Chen so I could weave in his input. But Chen didn’t seem to have any input. After I presented the first main point, I glanced over at him for his examples, but he didn’t speak up. He didn’t open his mouth, lean forward, or raise his hand. Apparently, he had no example to provide. Not wanting to embarrass Chen, I simply continued to my next point.
To my growing dismay, Chen remained silent and nearly motionless as I went through the rest of my presentation. He nodded politely while I was speaking, but that was all; he used no other body language to indicate any reactions, positive or negative. I gave every example I could think of. I spoke, shared, and consulted with the Bernards, still with no input from Chen.
As I neared the end, I turned toward Chen with rising panic; I needed his contribution. So I decided to take a chance. “Bo,” I asked, “did you have any examples you would like to share?” Chen sat up straight in his chair, smiled confidently at the clients, and opened up his notebook, which was filled with many pages of typed notes. “Thank you, Erin,” he replied. “I do.” Chen then began to explain one clear, pertinent, fascinating example after another.
What had just happened? Since this was a cross-cultural training program, it seemed we all could learn something—myself included. “Bo,” I exclaimed, “you had these great examples! Why didn’t you jump in and share them earlier?”
“Were you expecting me to?” he asked, a look of genuine surprise on his face. “In this room,” he explained, turning to M. and Mme. Bernard, “Erin is the chairman of the meeting. As she is the senior person in the room, so I wait for her to call on me. And while I’m waiting, I show I’m a good listener by keeping both my voice and body quiet. In China,” he added, “we often feel Westerners speak up so much in meetings that they’re either showing off or aren’t really listening. Chinese people leave several seconds of silence before speaking up.”
“I kept waiting for Erin to be quiet long enough for me to jump in,” Chen continued, “but my turn never came. I would’ve liked to make one of my points, if an appropriate length of pause had arisen. But Erin was always talking, so I just kept waiting.”
That was 16 years ago. Since then, I’ve devoted my career to studying communication in multinational organizations and on global teams. Over and over again, Asian and European business professionals ask me the same thing: “Why do Americans speak so much in meetings?”
One reason is the U.S. school system, among the only ones in the world where students are graded largely on how much they speak up and contribute, even if what they say isn’t particularly insightful. Compare that to China, where students learn in school only to speak if they’ve carefully prepared their contribution.
Here are a few simple strategies for setting a team climate where everyone contributes, regardless of cultural norms.
Give people time to prepare what they’re going to say. In many countries, like Japan, Thailand, and Ethiopia, people learn from a young age to speak only when they’re sure what they are going to say is correct, and also once they’ve heard what others are thinking. Sit people from these cultures down with Australians or Dutch people, who tend to learn that saying something wrong or expressing a difference of opinion is no big deal, and it’s obvious who’s likely to talk more.
You can say:
On the conference call on Wednesday I will be asking for your input on these six questions. Please prepare because I will be calling on you.
This gives everyone a chance to get ready, as well as to check with others, ahead of time.
Get in the habit of calling on everyone frequently. Once you’ve told them to prepare, don’t just let your meeting be a free-for-all with airspace up for grabs. Make sure everyone has equal time to speak by going around the room, or designating who will speak when.
You can say:
Thanks for those great comments you made earlier, Joe. Now I’d love to hear from some of you who haven’t had a chance yet. Taka, we haven’t heard from you yet this morning. Your thoughts on this topic?
Watch your colleagues. In the U.S. when someone wants to speak, they usually just jump in, or possibly raise a hand. In many other cultures, people might indicate they have something to say with subtler body language, perhaps by the way they look at the leader. As the facilitator of the team, you should look carefully for signs that people might want to speak and are waiting to be called on.
You can say:
Achara, you know a lot about this topic. Do you have something you’d like to add?
If, like me, you ever find yourself doing all the talking and wondering when your international colleagues will speak up, the most valuable strategy may be taking the initiative to just be quiet.
Parts of this article are adapted from The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD and an expert in cross-cultural management. Follow her on Twitter at @ErinMeyerINSEAD.