To Speak or Not to Speak: Avoiding Awkward Silences in Cross Cultural Interactions

Matthew MacLachlan

6 Apr 2010

In an ever-increasing global working environment, the successful outcome of cross cultural business negotiations is often determined by our capacity to work effectively across cultures with international business partners. However, this capacity highly depends on the interaction process itself as much as on what is said during the negotiation. Turn taking strategies, or the way people structure their participation throughout the negotiation, are just one element of cross cultural negotiations that are crucial for success.

Have you ever thought to yourself, during a conversation, why isn’t he saying anything? Or have you found yourself getting frustrated that you can’t get a word in? Taking a turn is the precise moment in any interaction when the role of speaker is taken or given to another person. This can be shown through a pause, a change of intonation, decrease of volume or a gesture such as a head nod.

Methods of signalling that it is now someone else’s turn to communicate can vary significantly when working across cultures. For example, when doing business in Finland you may notice conversations are often filled with a series of pauses before the next person speaks. Conversely, doing business in Spain you will see that your Spanish counterparts often take their turn to speak before the other person finishes their sentence.

People unfamiliar with Finnish turn taking patterns may try to fill the silence while those communicating for the first time with Spanish counterparts may feel frustrated by their constant interruptions. Failing to understand when you can contribute to the conversation can have a negative impact on how you are perceived and the impact you make in cross-cultural business negotiations.

Such implicit rules of turn taking are deeply embedded in our communication style. A lack of awareness of how people pause or overlap in conversations can lead to misinterpretation, confusion and frustration. Participating in a cultural awareness training programme such as Managing International Teams or Doing Business in Finland will help you understand the cross cultural styles of turn taking and ensure you communicate more effectively when doing business with international counterparts.

 



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