Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

When Cultures Clash

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on August 3, 2005.

Dear Crucial Skills,

Our city has been struggling with a diversity initiative, and we’ve been going through the Crucial Conversations Training to help address issues that keep our employees from working together because of cultural misunderstandings.

It’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to the terms “silence” and “violence” used in the training. It seems to be a matter of interpretation. For example, several people from different ethnic backgrounds say that being expressive and emotional is part of their cultural communication style–and yet people from other cultural backgrounds see this strong way of advocating as “violence” in crucial conversations language.

How do you address these differences in the way people define “silence” and “violence” when conversations are happening between people of different cultures?

Culture Clash

Dear Culture Clash,

You raise a very important question—and one we’ve thought a great deal about since we’ve worked with these skills literally everywhere from Israeli software companies and Kenyan slums to Malaysian factories and Wall Street investment banks. Here is our considered response.

Your twin responsibilities in a crucial conversation are: 1) to maintain safety; and 2) to engage in and encourage the free flow of meaning. All of the skills in Crucial Conversations are designed to accomplish these two tasks. Maintaining safety is hard enough when two people come from the same culture. It becomes even more complex when people come from a different culture. The reason is that people from different cultures tell themselves different “stories” about the behavior of others. Using active hand gestures while I speak might be seen as passion in one culture and coercion in another.

For example, I once worked with an Israeli software company who was acting as a vendor to an American telecom company. There were frequent crucial conversations breakdowns as a consequence of the widely different communication patterns used by the Israelis and the Americans. The Israelis were comfortable with relatively louder volume and more vigorous body language. The Midwestern Americans were intimidated and offended by this behavior. The story they told themselves about the behavior was that it was disrespectful and coercive.

How do you solve this problem? First, by holding the right conversation. Don’t just talk about “content” (key issues you need to address). If you are aware that there could be cultural differences, you should pause occasionally and talk about those differences. Talk about your differing patterns of behavior. Ask people how you are coming across. Encourage them to give you feedback about behaviors that might make it difficult for them to engage with you around crucial topics. Ask them what various patterns of behavior on their part mean to them.

Second, when you are digging into crucial conversations about content, watch for signs that the conversation is not working. Watch for marked changes in others’ behavior or facial expressions. If, for example, they are usually expressive but become silent, you can bet that safety might be at risk. They may be interpreting your behavior as violent when you intend it as something much different. Or, if they become louder than usual, again this is a sign that safety could be at risk and you should step out of the conversation and talk about the conversation. Again, ask for feedback about how you’re coming across—either now or later when it might be safer.

Working across cultures requires the same two sets of regular conversations that working to build any sort of strong relationship requires. The first is healthy crucial conversations about key issues (content or relationship). The second is regular crucial conversations about how to correctly interpret your differing behaviors (pattern).

The reason for the first kind of conversation is obvious. But the need for the second is less so. Many people fail to help their colleagues or loved ones correctly interpret the intent and meaning behind their own behaviors. They leave them open to be interpreted in the worst way possible—often with disastrous consequences.

If you want to work well across cultures, don’t just talk issues, talk behaviors—what they mean and don’t mean—and what works for the both of you.

Thanks for raising an important issue. And best wishes in the vital work you’re doing to bring greater unity and productivity into our wonderfully diverse world.


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14 thoughts on “When Cultures Clash”

  1. Shanice

    Great article. I will share with my peers.

  2. When Cultures Clash | Inclusive Cultural Capita...

    […] During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on August 3, 2005. Dear Crucial Skills, Our city has been struggling with a diversity initiative, a…  […]

  3. RL

    You paint a strong and unfortunately negative somewhat image of some of the places you’ve worked.

    “…since we’ve worked with these skills literally everywhere from Israeli software companies and Kenyan slums to Malaysian factories and Wall Street investment banks…”

    This was probably unintentional but when one reads your paragraph they may associate Kenya with slums, East Asia with factories…etc.

    1. Marlowe Embry

      Or, is Joseph just stating factually where the settings are that he has ACTUALLY worked with these individuals. I think it is easy to assume or perceive that someone else is communicating “A” when they are actually communicating “B”, based on the stories we tell ourselves.

      In example, I did not perceive anything negative as I realize that all these places have slums, factories, investment banks, etc. I don’t and did not only associate Kenyans with slums or Israelis with investment banks or east Asians with factories.

    2. Douglas

      I too found the “Kenyan Slums” remark somewhat derogatory and offensive…considering we are speaking of how language and words affect our relationships.

      1. Marlowe Embry

        Why was it derogatory and offensive? Does Kenya not have slums? If he has worked in a Kenyan slum why would he not say so and call it something else?

        1. Douglas

          Listen, I’m not interested in explaining why using “slum” as an adjective to describe a particular area in an African/Black country is wrong from a racial awareness and sensitivity (and really just human decency) perspective, because other smart people (i.e. the author of this article) have already got that covered. I’m here to tell you that I agreed with a similar sentiment from another individual regarding this post!

          If you don’t see why attaching words like slum to a particular demographic is a problem, you should probably ask yourself how many times you’ve used “trailer park” “trailer trash” to describe an area in North America generally populated by White people.

          1. Marlowe Embry

            Hi Douglas! Nice to meet you!! How about never, as the answer for how many times I have I used either of those terms since my sister and mother currently live in a mobile home community and I have lived in areas that may fit the definition of a “slum” by others!

            My family and I have also worked in Mexican colonias with the poorest of the poor while doing mission work and that is simply what they are called by the people living in them. I imagine that there is a different word that Kenyans use to describe their neighborhood, the author of the article (a smart person is how I have heard him described) used slum to help others understand the environment he actually worked in.

            My question for you was simply a question of why you find it offensive, nothing more. In response you did nothing but cast an aspersion that I use “trailer trash” and “trailer park” without knowing a thing about me or my history.

            You may want to back off on the caffeine intake or whatever else you are on, as it is not serving you well and is causing quite an unpleasant way to communicate with others or it just may be your personality! How about trying to be civil and simply responding, but perhaps you are not interested in explaining anything else?

          2. Douglas

            Thanks Marlowe! Great Advice, I will limit the caffeine consumption. Have a nice day.

        2. Shanice

          Good point. It’s the truth.

  4. Lin

    Wonderful post. I see this so often in family situations as ‘generational culture’ issues. When today’s teens and tween slouch back and multi-task by using their electronic devices it is seen as disrespectful and not caring about the current conversation to the older generation, but to their peers it is just a way of life. Which is correct? A little of both? The scary part to me (and yes, I am part of the ‘older’ generation) is when this same behavior comes into the work place.

  5. Chrsitine Carver

    “. . . regular crucial conversations about how to correctly interpret your differing behaviors (pattern).”
    Great piece! I am a Quaker and I am used to participatory decision making and not afraid to speak up, but other Friends have noticed that in other settings this behavior is interpreted as domineering, pushy, overbearing, forward, etc. (in short, violent). One person who wrote about this experience says she has tried to explain herself to co-workers, but it has not helped. Her story supports your point that it takes repeated clarification about our intent, perhaps as often as we put forth an opinion, to make a conversation “safe”. I encourage Friends who are seen as being too opinionated to be quiet until others have had a chance to speak. The others will often have the same opinion any way but they get to be the ones to voice those opinions from time to time.

    I have experienced this myself in new management situations where speaking up has all kinds of political implications that I am not used to being sensitive too. I am often not attending to the formal leader’s language and non-verbal communication. Even when the purported purpose is to get feedback to improve decision making, the real reason for a meeting is for us to be told what the decision is by the leader and to voice agreement with it. So I may not be regarded as “violent” but just stupid and cutting my own throat.

    I also heard stories about how “American” behavior is interpreted that supports the need for reflection and self-awareness. Russians and many Europeans have this impression of us as being a little mentally defective or goofy because we smile a lot. In Finland my husband got strange looks when he laughed aloud at a cartoon he was reading. Finns don’t laugh in public. So it is not just loud voices and gesturing that can be a barrier.

    I think everyone needs to try to be a little more comfortable with cultural styles and to realize they too have a style that may be misinterpreted.
    So checking in on how communication is going should be part of how we interact.

  6. Pat Borlagdan

    Crucially usefull information needed for harmonious workplace

  7. Studying Abroad in Paris tip- Culture Clash

    […] came across an article by Crucial Conversations about how to handle culture clash in the workplace ( They’re a company who writes books, conducts training and webinars and provides information on […]

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