Our culture conditions the way we give feedback to other people. This is one of the fascinating lessons we can explore with people from other countries. In places like Holland or Israel, you can expect people to say it like it is, while in Saudi Arabia or Japan it could take you weeks, months or even years to realize someone is hoping you will eventually get the hint. And in between these extremes, you have as many formulas for giving feedback as you have cultures around the world.
So, what happens when people from around the planet come to the USA to work or study and maybe even live with a host family, and we try to give them helpful nudges in the “right direction”, whatever that may be? Confusion. Yes! Too often, when we try to offer constructive criticism to help them fit in, maybe even let them know they are doing something that just doesn’t work in our culture, in a US workplace or even in our home, they just don’t get it. Why? Believe it or not, many of us are not as straight talkin’ as we’d like to believe.
Ever heard of the feedback sandwich?
First, we offer someone a soft slice of bread: “Hey, I want you to know how much I appreciate your hard work and attention to detail…”
Then we give them a piece of meat: “But it’s also really important you always turn things in on time, okay?”
And then, we top it all off with another slice of the fluffy stuff: “I do want you to know we’re happy with you. You’re doing really well, so keep up the good work!”
American ears perk up and (hopefully) start figuring out how to turn things in on time. But how might a foreigner interpret such a message?
Depending on their cultural background, they may only digest the "bread". “Am I really that fantastic? How kind of them to say so! Am I up for a promotion (or an A+)? Am I about to go viral in this country? Do they just love me, or what?”
There’s a very funny story about this in The Culture Map, professor Erin Meyer’s entertaining attempt to decode how people think, lead and get things done across cultures. She once prepared a French woman for her new job in the US and then called her for a six-month follow-up. Everything was… tres fantastique! That was her client’s version of the story, but not according to her American boss who was ready to fire her if she didn’t start responding to her colleagues’ feedback. Sadly, it was too soft, and included too many pieces of too yummy bread, which she was feasting on, without even noticing the thin sheets of cheese in between.
Similarly, too many generous, loving US host families feed their exchange students a similar diet of carefully concocted constructive criticism, only to cry out in desperation, “He just doesn’t get it! And we’ve tried everything!”. Everything that is, except formulating their feedback in a way that cuts through cross-cultural communication barriers like a sharp dart aiming at a target.
So, how does that work? How can we give feedback to foreigners in ways they understand? And preferably without hurting anyone’s feelings - which is why someone created that first feedback sandwich so long ago!
There are no magic formulas, but these four tips will help you get your message through.
No matter how good a foreigner’s English is, we have unrealistic expectations if we think they can catch hints or even slightly indirect messages during their early months among us. The learning curve is huge! And if you don’t believe me, I challenge you to pack your things and move to China or India – or even Spain (like I did) for a few years to see what it’s like. Expect reality: you need to spend some extra time carefully and clearly explaining the important stuff or it just won’t get through.
And on the subject of clarity, that means saying, “you need to do it this way” and not “I know you’re busy and I appreciate X, Y and Z, but if it’s not too much trouble, you might consider thinking about trying to maybe do A instead of B…”. No way! Please state your case. Go ahead, use your kindest tone of voice, but be sure the message is simple and clear.
We all see the world through the lens of our culture. And guess what? We listen through cultural earbuds that continually broadcast the beliefs, values and rules of our native culture on high volume. So, speaking clearly is not enough. Put it in writing and post it in plain view if appropriate, and don’t hesitate to explain your intentions: “I care about you and want to help you be successful”.
Finally, in keeping with your realistic expectations, prepare to repeat your message at least a few times. Put yourself in their shoes. What if you were the foreigner in their country, trying to adapt to thousands of differences big and small? If someone was trying to get you to change, wouldn’t you like a few chances to really understand and get it right? That kind of empathy will get you a long way.
At the heart of any feedback challenge is a very simple question: how do we get other people to change? This question can spark surprising conversations with people from all over the world. Ask, “In this situation, how do people do it in your country?” and “If someone was doing it wrong, what would the boss (or mom or dad) do?” Prepare yourself for some surprising answers. This is the start of an amazing adventure!