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Podcast Episode 027: Listen across cultures and continents – Tom Verghese stresses the importance of understanding your culture before you start to listen to other cultures

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In low context, “No” means no. “Yes” means yes. I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. I get to the point, and I am direct. High-context is less clear. Contextual is not only about what is said but how it is said….the tone, pitch, facial expressions, etc.

It is important to know your own culture before you can understand someone else’s culture. Today’s guest is Tom Verghese, a cross-cultural consultant. Tom expresses the importance of listening for meaning, what’s unsaid, and use of silence.

We live in a globalized world, yet we spend very little time reflecting on our own culture. So, most of us are unable to articulate our own cultural values. To be a culturally intelligent leader, it is critical to understand your own cultural values.

How can you close a deal by listening to another culture? In this episode, Tom describes how things work across cultures. He is committed to greater understanding across cultures.

Tune in to Learn

  • Tom addresses differences between cultures, such as when scheduling meetings. People can listen carefully to what’s being discussed, rather than spending all their time paying attention to the clock.
  • In some cultures, it is difficult for people to challenge, speak up, have an opinion…unless they are asked or invited to do so.
  • How do you move forward into the senior level of the glass ceiling? It’s not about your education or how hard you worked, it is about the unsaid.
  • It’s about whether people you meet with will trust you, if you will know what to do and use during formal dinners – unspoken things.
  • How do we learn that? Seek sponsorship, guidance, and coaching to learn the rules of the games when it comes to different cultures.
  • It can be as simple as how to shake hands. When Tom first came to Australia to sell encyclopedias door-to-door, he sold nothing. His manager taught him how to properly shake hands there for people to view him as trustworthy, sincere, and reliable – that all comes from a handshake.
  • However, coming from Malasia, Tom had been giving a gentle handshake. There was a clash, and he was giving the wrong impressions.
  • Handshakes and eye contact are non-verbal forms of communication that matter in different cultures.
  • There are differences in high vs. low-context communication styles. It is not just about what is said, but non-verbal communication, as well. The message is not in what is said, but what is not being said.
  • Silence comes into play because there are a lot more gaps when determining when to respond and what to listen for. In Western culture, there are social cues. For example, one person speaks and the other person pauses. In other cultures, there is overlap where people speak at the same time and on top of each other.
  • A gap of silence demonstrates a level of respect. This can be very challenging for some people.
  • Went Tom and a client went to Korea for a meeting in the banking industry, his client found it difficult to not over-talk. He found it a lot easier to talk about what to do in different cultures, than to actually do what you are supposed to do in the moment.
  • This experience helped Tom to improve his coaching techniques by having clients ask a question and then perform a physical movement as a way to keep quiet – become comfortable in the silence.
  • Watch and listen for indicators that typically go over your head. Make sure to ask follow-up questions to move toward action.
  • Years ago, it was about cross-cultural effectiveness: how to deal with different cultures. Now, the focus is on cultural intelligence – how to deal with people from different cultural backgrounds. For example, someone may look Chinese, but they were raised in America, studied in Spain, and married someone from Norway.
  • It comes down to deep listening – how do I listen for the message behind the words?
  • How do you start a meeting that is conscious of all cultures present? Establish agreements, ground rules, and a belief system. For example, agree on a specific time standard, ie. British, India, etc.
  • If you work with language interpreters, Tom’s advice is to speak less.
  • Be careful. Jokes are very difficult to translate across different cultures.
  • The person who breaks the rules is the person who does n, which creates angst.
  • Different cultures treat conflict differently. Conflict involves different points of agreement and view. When dealing with someone who has a different view, disagree gently and in ways that maintain relationships.
  • Be interested in the other and what they are saying. Everyone has a story. Listen to that story.

Transcript

Episode 27: Deep Listening with Tom Verghese

Oscar Trimboli:

In this episode of Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words, we have the opportunity to move across the world with Tom, a cross-cultural consultant who spends every day at the intersection of different culture. The most important lesson I took from this interview was the importance of knowing your own culture before you could understand somebody else’s. Tom talks about the importance of listening for meaning, for listening for what’s unsaid, for the use of silence in high-context cultures and what that means. 

I love the story about the Korean banking example. Listen out as we travel all way to Korea to understand if somebody from the west can close a deal without really understanding the importance of silence. Explore with Tom as he talks about the difference between British Standard Time and Indian Stretch Time and what that means when you’re setting up a meeting so that people can listen carefully to what’s being discussed rather than spending all your time paying attention to the clock. Then finally, listen out and watch as the curry and yoghourt drips down his wife’s wrist all the way to his sleeve as she turns to Tom to ask for advice on how this works across cultures. Let’s listen to Tom. 

Oscar Trimboli:

As someone who’s committed themselves to creating greater understanding across cultures, what advice would you give to listeners when they’re consciously aware that somebody’s come from a very hierarchical Asian education system and what that means in a western context?

Tom Verghese:

I think it’s important for us to realise that when you’ve grown up in a hierarchical culture, it is actually difficult to challenge, to speak up, to have an opinion unless you are asked. Actually, you need to be asked, you need to be invited in. Let me give you an example of that. Two months ago, I was speaking at the Australian Asian Leadership Conference in Sydney and saying to the audience that had we run this conference 10 years ago, nobody would have attended. Fives year ago, probably nobody would have attended. Last year, I think there were 15 people and this year, there were 70. Majority, 95% were Asians, 5% Anglos and the age group ranged from 18 the probably mid to late 30s was the demographic. 

I mentioned to the group out of jest really, I said, “I bet you, there are more MBAs in this group that you could poke a stick at. So, let’s have a show of hands.” I bet you all these MBAs in the group. I said, “I bet you what’s happening.” I said, “So, here we are, group of people. Highly educated.” Most of them would be second generation Asian, so which means their parents came here, worked really hard, two jobs, educated them. They’ve got into the corporate world, worked really hard, studied hard, doing what’s required, have moved up the organisation and suddenly are now facing that sense of how do I move forward here? Normally known as the glass ceiling for women. We call it the bamboo ceiling within the Asian context. Sometimes now referred to as the cultural glass ceiling, whichever way it is. But it’s that how do I actually move into that senior level and what is it? The reality being that it’s not the education, it’s not the things of how hard you work. It’s all the things that’s the unsaid, which is really around organisational culture. 

For instance, the things that I’ll be going through the senior leaders in terms of can I put you in front of the analyst and will they trust you? Can I take you out for a formal meal and will you know which knives and forks to use? Those things are the things that’s actually very tacit, right? Unspoken. How do we learn those things? The importance really then is how do we learn that? So, for people who are from a different culture, the importance of actually looking for sponsorship, guidance, coaching so that we can learn the rules of the game. But vice versa, how do we, on the other hand, as western leaders, also look at developing those talents, developing those skills, unleashing that so that we get the maximum out of them as well?

Oscar Trimboli:

Sometimes, it’s as simple as how you shake hands.

Tom Verghese:

Oh, yes. I think the shaking hands thing is actually a key thing. Let me give you an example of that. When I first came, as I said, to Australia in that first summer, I picked up a job that summer and was selling encyclopaedias door-to-door. So, this just shows you how far back I it goes. As my son would say it, “Why would anybody buy books?” But I say, “There was a time, a different era.” I remember in my first month of selling encyclopaedias, I sold absolutely nothing. I went to my sales manager at that time, Mr. Ian McLaren, and I said, “Mr. McLaren, please help me. I’m trying hard. I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to do. Nothing seems to be working.” Mr. McLaren turned around and said, “Tom, I’m going to teach you a couple of things. Here’s what I want you to do. Put your hand out,” and he shook my hand. He said, “Give me a good, firm handshake and look at me in the eye,” which I did.

One of the things I realised was coming from Malaysia, when we shake hands, we shake hands in a very gentle manner. But in Australia, it’s important to have a firm handshake and it’s gender neutral because a firm handshake depicts a number of things. You’re trustworthy, you’re sincere, you can be counted on, you’re reliable, you’re not a wet fish. All comes from a handshake. If think about all the work that we do or bias, unconscious bias, non-verbal communications, I’m getting all my indicators from that handshake. Whereas in Malaysia, a gentle handshake demonstrates respect, sincerity, commitment.

So, there was a clash. Obviously, I’m having the intention of having a soft handshake here but giving the wrong impressions, so I had to really shift. Also, eye contact becoming much more important. Again, in the Asian context, you’d make an eye contact but you’ll avert the gaze as also a matter of being respectful whereas here, eye contact is much more important. Those were all non-verbal communication and I’ll always indebted to Mr. McLaren. He was really a cross-cultural coach without even knowing that he was a cross cultural coach.

Oscar Trimboli:

The question I’m wanting to ask is the question about the role of silence across the two cultures. 

Tom Verghese:

From a literature point of view, if you look at the theory, one of the differences that we talk about in the literature around culture is high context, low context communication styles based very much on the work of Edward Hall. Low context cultures are where yes means yes, no means no. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I get to point, I’m direct. So that’s if you think about the extremes in terms of low context. High context is where yes may mean yes, yes may also mean no, and yes may mean maybe depending on how it’s said. So, it’s contextual. So, it’s not just what’s said but it’s the tonality of the voice, the pitch, facial expressions, body language, et cetera.

I think in lot of high context cultures, sometimes the message is not in what’s being said but what’s not being said. The role of silence comes in because there are a lot more gaps in terms of where do I actually respond and what I listening for. In western construct, in western cultures, person A and person B, you and I are speaking. You speak, pause, I speak. Then I pause, you speak. So, there is a cue, right? What we call the social cues on how we come in, when do we speak. There are other cultures, for instance, where we overlap. We’ll speak on top of each other and that’s okay because we’re listening in the process.

Then there are again other types of cultures where one person speaks, there’s a gap of three to five seconds before the next person speaks, three to five seconds, next person speaks. That gap of silence is to demonstrate a level of respect. I’ve heard you. I’m processing what you’ve said and now, let me respond, which is in fact very challenging actually for western leaders, I find. One of the things I have to work I senior western execs is actually to shut up, to keep quiet.

Oscar Trimboli:

Do you have an example of that?

Tom Verghese:

Yeah, sure. I find many of time when you’re having a conversation piece. I’m giving you a classic example of a client of mine who work in the banking industry who went to Korea on a meeting and really, the Koreans are much very high context cultures, very relationship based. In the process, as he did on reflection and although we practised it before he went, we talked about it quite a bit, it’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another thing to do it when you’re in the moment. I think he was conscious of the fact afterwards on reflection where he just over spoke it, he just over talked. He asked a question, there’d be a pause. What is going through his head was, “Oh, maybe they didn’t understand the question, so let me say it another way or let me say it louder, let me rephrase that,” rather than just allowing, rather than just sit in it. 

I think that’s an example of where it occurred and I think also, the other thing in terms of also high context and low context is at the end of the presentation when he had done the presentation their response was, “It’s very interesting. We will give it very careful consideration,” which for him was an indicator that it had gone well. The reality of it is it was actually a no. They were actually turning it down. So again, how do we listen for meaning in what’s being said? Instead of just looking at the literal translation, how do I actually understand what is the intentionality of the word, of what’s being said?

Well, also I’ve learned from that example because I learned from him, so I have shifted in the way I coach and so I’ve improved in myself and one of the things now that I teach a lot of my clients, especially in those context when they’re working in those cultures, is to ask a question and then do a physical movement In most instances, I teach people to pinch just the part between the thumb and their finger, just to pinch themselves as a way of reminding themselves to keep quiet, to shut up. So, ask the question, hold on, breathe, pause, and to be comfortable in the silence.

Oscar Trimboli:

In that state, clients elicited that it’s a really interesting presentation and we’ll give it consideration, which is a very elegant and very respectful no, yet they walked away from the presentation thinking they had a chance. Is there any other question they could have asked in that moment to get a better insight themselves?

Tom Verghese:

Absolutely. So, it’s always to ask the follow up questions. The question in that instance would have been thank you very much for that. Can I ask you what was it that was interesting about it? In other words, digging down into it. When someone says, “Yes, we will think about that more or yes, we can do that. Okay, terrific,” what’s going to be the first step in terms of moving that into action? Actually, delving down into it, specifically with high context cultures bearing in mind that in a lot of high context cultures, it’s also about maintaining face, showing respect so they down want to turn down and a lot of cultures find it very difficult to use the word no. So, they don’t use the word no. They may say no, but they don’t use the word no. So, it’s the manner in the way they say no or it could be the sucking in with a deep breath and ooh, that will be difficult. All these are indicators, which if we are not used to that, we don’t pick up those signals so it completely goes over our head. 

Oscar Trimboli:

Would you be able to share some frameworks for our listener? Some simple ways for them to think through this because a lot of people think cultural context is travelling overseas and yet particularly in Australia or in most western economies, cross-cultures happen every day. It could happen in a context and it could happen in a supermarket or it could happen in your own office. What’s a framework or frameworks you would recommend that people explore?

Tom Verghese:

Once again, if we talk about the field as such, in the early days, we always used to talk about cross-cultural effectiveness. That’s what it was. I’m going to China. How do I deal to learn with the Chinese? I’m going to Mexico. How do I deal about that? But these days, especially in the last 12 years or so, we used the term cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is the ability to deal with people from different cultural backgrounds. 

It’s in dealing with diverse settings because in today’s world, you may speak to somebody who may look, for instance, Chinese but they grew up in the United States. They studied in Spain. They’ve worked in Brazil and they’re married to somebody from Norway. So, it’s that whole issue around how do I build a skillset that allows me enough flex? How do I then understand and appreciate my preference in terms of my style of speaking, my style of listening and do I allow for time to do that and that ability to actually pause, which is in fact what you talked about, right? So, it’s about deep listening. How do I listen for the message that’s behind the words? 

Oscar Trimboli:

If you think about the walls gone from being cross-cultural to global, and I’m a leader who’s working with cross-cultural team, I want to bring you back to the handshake.

Tom Verghese:

Yup.

Oscar Trimboli:

The western handshake was firm, the Malaysian handshake was not, which is appropriate and how should you lead is the question that everybody prompts. So, an example of that might be how do I start a meeting that is conscious of all context and cultures in the room rather than just making an assumption about what’s present?

Tom Verghese:

Sure thing. Well, I think it’s about having agreements right up front. So, let’s go back to the concept of the handshake. It’s being able to understand within myself what meaning am I giving to the handshake? So, if I come from a belief system and have a bias that says for instance I can tell a lot about an individual from their handshake, which by the way many people believe. If I have that as a belief system, then that is going to be a strong indicator for me. However, if I’m being more culturally intelligent, what I’ll turn around and be able to say to myself is, “Okay, people shake hands differently in cultures. In some cultures, they don’t even shake hands. So perhaps, don’t attribute meaning to that. I’m not saying don’t pay attention to it, but don’t layer as much meaning onto that. How do I just take that back?

Your question then also, but if I’m working in a team that has people from multiple cultures, how do I set that up? I think it’s about having ground rules. Earlier in the year in Mumbai, working with a multinational, we had people from a number of different countries and one of the things we have in India is called the Indian Stretch Time, IST, which means that in India, generally speaking, Indians tend to me polychronic. They have a very loose and flexible attitude to time. I’m not saying that they’re not on time, but just their general attitude is loose to time. So, meeting’s 10, maybe come later, et cetera. 

One of the things we established right upfront when we were setting up ground rules for our time together was well, let’s agree on time and what times do we want to work on. Do we look at British Standard Time? Do we work on British Standard Time or do we work on Indian Standard Time? Let’s have an agreement so that then we’ll understand what are we all agreeing on because otherwise, people get annoyed and when I get annoyed, I’ll start looking for fault and then I start layering things on and that then impacts the relationship.

Oscar Trimboli:

So, don’t give a meaning but pay attention to it. Lovely summary there. I’m intrigued about what we haven’t covered so far that you think would help the listener, whether it’s the key thing that people take from reading your book or the key insight you’ve had from your wife and the hand she eats with. What do you think would serve the listener most?

Tom Verghese:

I think we spend very little time reflecting on our own culture. So, most people are not able to articulate their own cultural values. We live in a globalised world. One of the biggest requests I get is tell us about the other, it’s always about the other, and my response is, “It’s not about the other. It’s about you. Let’s hold up the mirror because the other is always relative to you.” It’s always relative, right? It’s not objective. Culture is subjective. So, in one cultural context, you may come across as being direct. In another cultural context, you may come across as being indirect. It’s who and what are you comparing that with. 

So, to be a culturally intelligent leader, it’s really critical for you to understand what are your own cultural values. What are the signals that you look at in terms of professionalism, good teamwork, good cohesion, trustworthiness, reliability? So, if you can understand that, then you know within yourself those are the standards you’re using to assess, to gauge and also be appreciated that I’m actually using my lens. I’m using my lens in a different context. Yes, it may be correct, but I also maybe incorrect. So, who do I check that with? How do I get a reality check? So, if I am then conscious about my … know yourself, right? Know thyself, which is goes back to the philosophy of way, old, old, ancient times. Know thyself so that in that way, you can be more effective in dealing with others.

Oscar Trimboli:

What advice would you give professionals who have to work with language interpreters? 

Tom Verghese:

Speak less. Speak less. I think for those people who have good command of English, they tend to overuse language, especially when you have people who are interpreting, it does take a lot of time. You know, there’s the old story about the successful business person who went on a trip to Japan and he had an interpreter with him on his first day. So, he obviously did his presentation and he was from the West, let’s not talk about any particular country, but part of the presentation style was about starting the presentation with humour. So, he had a number of jokes right up front and his first presentation in Japan, people laughed at his jokes. So, he was really happy with how the presentation went. On his second day, he was doing the same presentation on another, but this time he had a different interpreter. He told the same jokes, but no one laughed. So, he thought to himself, “Gosh this interpreter is not funny.”

On day three, same presentation, he had the interpreter from day one, told the same jokes and everybody laughed. He said, “Okay, I’m back.” He was excited, but in the back of his mind, he thought himself, I better check some assumptions that I’ve made. So, at the end of the presentation, he asked the interpreter, “Look day one, told the jokes, everyone laughed. Day three, told the jokes, everyone laughed ‘coz you were the common denominator, but day two, no one laughed at the jokes. So, tell me how did you tell the jokes that people were able to laugh?” She said, “Well, sir I just told the audience the gentleman has just made a joke, please laugh,” and that is a true story. So, jokes are very difficult to translate over different cultures. It’s so culturally bound. So, speak less.

Oscar Trimboli:

I think it’s around one of the things that we need to understand and goes back to the point about understanding your own culture. It’s really important for us to realise that culture is tacit. In other words, you know your culture. It’s in your gut. Like you know it. You know I may not be able to articulate these other things that’s important in my culture, but I know it and my wife is English. Some many years ago, before we got married, I took my wife back to visit my parents in Malaysia and my wife, in an attempt to demonstrate cultural sensitivity, said to me, “Tom in your house I’m going to eat food with my fingers.” Because I’m Indian, growing up in an Indian household, we eat with our fingers, and I said, “Yeah, great. That’s a good idea. Do that.” 

In our first meal, my parents are there, my brothers, my sister. We’re eating our meal, in the first five minutes, my wife does run to me nudges me in the ribs and says, “How do you stop the curry and yoghourt from running down your hands?” I said, “I don’t know.” It wasn’t happening to me and it wasn’t happening to anyone else at the table. It was only happening to her. It really drove home the point that I’d learn how to eat food with my fingers from a very early age and that’s a whole art and science to how to eat food with your fingers, right? It’s an etiquette, you know, how do you mix the food, how do you get the consistency, et cetera. I mean, because I read up on it now so I know how to talk about it. 

In the same way, she was just learning how to do it and that same thing translates to chopsticks, using a knife and a fork. What’s the appropriate way to use a knife and a fork? Do we cut the meat up first, then move the fork to the right hand? How do I use chopsticks? If you go down to Chinatown, you will see four-year-olds using chopsticks without even thinking twice about it and you’ll see grown adults in the restaurant struggling with it, but those are all tacit. So, we learn those things within our culture and that’s just to do with food. But think about how we deal with hierarchy, how we deal with members of the opposite gender, how we deal with conflict, how we deal with teamwork. What is seen to be professional, unprofessional? What’s clean, what’s dirty? What’s rational, what’s irrational? What’s logical, illogical? All those things are very much culturally bound.

Within an individual you will have different parameters on those things, based on your cultural upbringing. Now, you may not agree with all those rules, okay? You may not agree with them and you may not like them, but you know the rules. Compared to when you’re working across cultures, the person who breaks the rules is the individual who doesn’t know the culture and that’s what creates the angst. That’s what suddenly highlights, “Well, that’s the cultural norm,” and that individual has … what has that individual done?

Oscar Trimboli:

So, let’s talk to how conflict plays across differently. I had a great method that were all drawn for me the other day. If we drew a circle from Pakistan through China, Japan, and all the way down to Indonesia, more people live inside that circle than live outside that circle. How do you think they treat conflict differently?

Tom Verghese:

Well, if you think about conflict, it’s really having different points of agreement, different points of view, right? So, how do I actually deal with someone who has a different point of view? Now, of course in certain cultures, if you’re coming from a more collectivist culture, higher group orientation, more people, higher density living, it’s not easy to just disagree abruptly. So, you may disagree gently. You may disagree in ways that actually maintains relationships in the same context because the relationships are important as compared to working in, you know coming from maybe individualistic cultures where it’s about having a point of view. If I disagree with you, it’s actually pointing out the fact that I disagree with you and here’s my point of view and what’s your point of view. Being able to enter into robust debate, robust discussion versus for those cultures for whom one of the great values is actually maintaining harmony.  

Oscar Trimboli:

What would be the one tip you would give to the audience to improve their listening across cultures?

Tom Verghese:

My one tip would be to be interested. Be interested in the other. Be interested rather than being interesting. Be interested. Because everyone has a story Oscar, right? Everyone has a story. How do I listen to the story?

Oscar Trimboli:

I think that’s a really simple place to finish. Thank you very much, Tom.

Tom Verghese:

Most welcome, Oscar. Thank you.

Oscar Trimboli:

I could have spoken to Tom for another hour. The examples that came up consistently, you could see there was decades and decades of experience in the work that Tom had done. I love the way he talked about high-context cultures, which were Korean, Japanese, and Chinese cultures, and the way he contrasted them to low-context cultures. Also, the way he talked about collectivist versus individual approaches in language and how you need to listen for that, particularly when you’re dealing with conflict in situations that may be teamwork or across organisations. 

My favourite phrase was when he talked about shaking hands and the strength or lack of in a handshake is important. What he said was, “Don’t lay remaining onto it, but it is important to pay attention to it.” Tom spent a lot of time talking about the role of meaning and understanding the meaning that’s applied while you’re listening. What are the various filters that you’re using in your listening? It’s really important to step back and understand your own culture first. It’s only when understanding your own culture that you can listen for the differences in others. How deeply do you understand your own culture in the way meaning is attributed to a handshake? 

I think the best example that brought this home was when Tom talked about a leader that moved across sporting cultures and talked about a very simple metaphor, pulling up your socks, and how that didn’t work in the new culture and ultimately, the lack of cultural awareness has led to her demise as the CEO of that organisation. What level are you listening on across cultures? In an intensely global world today, it’s critical that you have a lens to understand culture. How loudly are you speaking? How quickly are you speaking and how does it help or hinder the other person from listening? 

Thanks for taking the time to listen to me. So, we’ll just take off. Thanks for listening to me out of this and more just to add on this note now. The one thing I took away that was really … there I go again using that term. The one tip I took away from Tom that I will integrate into what I do is when I asked Tom the question, “What do you do to listen to alternative positions,” and Tom actively, consistently, and deliberately integrates those questions into anything he does to invite other perspectives into that dialogue. So in that way, he not only increases the perspective on his own understanding, but he allows others to be heard when expressing their prospective. How actively are you inviting diverse perspectives into a dialogue so not only that you can listen to them, but they can feel heard? 

Thanks for listening.

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