And there are always those little cultural things you don’t notice

While continuing to ponder about everything around the interpersonal communications area, I mentioned to a few friends about some odd tips I’d listened to in a textbook for future managers and HR people. The views of the friends were much like mine, and that’s because of having been raised in Europe, and also for being culturally perhaps a big more gen x than of the millennial era.

The management and HR guide suggested to avoid giving negative feedback. So not even when it’d be warranted and might actually help. Just give the positive, empty praise. “Wow, you are great, Jimmy”. Instead of “Jimmy, you are an incredibly smart person and a good coder. But some of the managers have complained you aren’t very good in small talk” or the irrelevant equivalents of “Alice, you’re one of the most technical people here in the tech support. But you should perhaps wear more high heel shoes because dress code, and the other women in the workplace feel threatened as your communication style seems way too direct”. The method of giving positive feedback and then trying to improve one or two things works better.

If you completely skip the feedbacks of how you could improve (at best, make it concrete and measurable), then how are the people around you supposed to know how to improve and how to grow? If they are lazy, they probably know it. So when you don’t bring that, they can either assume that it’s ok and accepted as noone has mentioned anything about it, or they can just the magic mindreading skills apparently some women have. Which is where a really veiled feedback would come in. Bubblewrap the feedback so it sounds all nice and is not even understandable (“You’re great, Jim” – wait, what? What did I do now?). Some reasons the avoidance of real feedback was suggested was that it could make people feel uncomfortable. Which stuck, so after listening to it a week ago, I’ve turned that to something more of cultural observations.

There seems to be a huge cultural issue in giving feedback. Everyone is trying to please everyone, and is afraid of offending everyone and anyone, so there are huge loops in avoiding confrontation. If someone irritates someone else, instead of talking to the other person, or to the manager, the American will go to the HR and complain. When the HR will consist of mostly millennials, what kind of work culture will this lead to? When everyone is trying to be ah so politically correct and “inclusive” and have so much great “diversity” (and neither the inclusive or diversity parts of your company include any disabled people, who are in yet another category, as apparently not diverse enough, and inclusion only includes certain categories)… those unable to read the unsaid and unwritten will be disadvantaged.

You are supposed to constantly praise how wonderful and so special everyone is. Americans want to be so individual and be praised for that. On the same time they have some cliques (think of high school kids that have a common interest. So they’d have the art crowd, the j-pop crowd, the sporty team etc. I was explained this is part of the culture in high schools here, and it continues to the workplaces too. I never noticed similar clique things in European high schools), and they have a very socially confirming culture too. Pick your crowd (religion, school, sports teams, political party, special interests) and confirm to them. Never change. Never question the foundations or the power chain. I assume the culture of avoiding confrontation applies to further than just workplace, so smile and smalltalk working your way up in the social cliques too?

When so much of all communication is veiled, people saying one thing and meaning a completely different thing, is added to this mix, it gets often mildly put, frustrating. There are many things Americans like to say but don’t mean, where the European would take them for their words or promise. When they do, they confuse the American. “We should get some coffee together some time” is a good example. What the European would mean saying that is let’s go get a coffee. What an American seems to often imply with that is “I’m romantically interested in you”. “You should come visit us some day” for a European means what it says. For an American, it can be just a nice way to say “I don’t really like you, please don’t take my words for what I just said, I hope we’ll never meet again”. Instead of saying with any direct method what you want to say, they prefer to put on nice words, candy coat it, lie, and it’s all for the appearances and for fear of hurting the other person. Because honesty is more hurtful than being lied to? “Cultural issues”. Yes, I know I’m being unfair writing this because not all Americans do that. But enough of them do, leading to this generalization based on their behaviors, on how it differs from what the social norms of behavior would be in Europe. I will never invite someone to visit if I don’t want to see them, and for the fear or being misunderstood romantically, that’s also a no to any coffee invites as well.

I’ve seen incredible extents of where the lack of confrontation can go. I’ve lost the respect to people because of it, and feel very uncomfortable giving examples as it would be hard without giving any identifying details. I’ve moved on, found a better fit of places where to feel included and respected. Where being direct and not lying aren’t seen as negatives, even if you’re of the sex associated with less direct communication and more lies.


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