Words can be used to convey much more than we realise

At a previous company we, along with many other companies, outsourced most of our software development to an organisation based in India. How much money this actually saved in the end I’m not sure – I often heard complaints from our senior engineers that they “had to do it all again”. But we did have a lot of dealings with some really pleasant and professional folks who would come over from India for a few weeks at a time to visit us in the UK. One thing that became apparent was that our conversations were often at cross purposes. For example it might start like this:

Me: …. So this software has been fully tested now?
Him… Oh yes, most definitely, yes yes

Conversation develops and it becomes apparent to me that this software has definitely not been tested …

Me … Oh so this has not been tested then?
Him Oh certainly, yes, yes
Me (to myself): how can this person answer yes to every question?

The use of words ….is not so much to convey truth as to establish relationship”

Even with me being ethnically Indian (but brought up in the UK), it took me some time to understand. It turns out that in these conversations I, as a “data driven cold westerner”, just want the information: “give me the answer to this question … nothing more, nothing less”. But he has a different agenda, basically to establish a warm and friendly relationship in which we can all “work together and get on”. Causing me to be disappointed, especially early in our relationship, is not something he wants to do. Rather, being agreeable and amiable is his way of establishing a long-term relationship with me, and getting around my immediate, pointed questions.

This is a difference we notice between many people from developing countries and westerners. Eg this year I read a book by Vincent Donovan, in which he describes the use of words in Tanzanian culture, which is not so much to convey truth as to establish relationship. He gives the following account (abridged):

African school

 “If I were in charge of a boarding school in East Africa and saw a boy break a window there are two ways I could deal with it.

I could act out of my western culture and call him and ask ‘Johnny, did you break that window?’ I want logical truth. He undoubtedly would say ‘No’, not because he is a liar but because he is trying with his words to repair the social damage I have done with mine.

The second way is to act in accordance with his culture, to call him in and say,
‘Hello Johnny, how are you?’
‘How are you doing in your studies?’
‘Better, I’m getting better marks in maths’
‘Good, how is your health?’
‘Not bad. The food here is good. I’m getting big and strong. I can now kick a football 50 yards……. I kicked it through a window……’

Words are being used to maintain a community fabric, and to tear through this with a piercing accusation is actually counter-productive.

Men and Women

Much closer to home, it’s actually also a difference between men and women. I am generalising of course, but I suspect it’s true. For instance, everyone who knows my wife Alison will say she is a “quiet person”. In the house however Alison is far from quiet. During the day there is a persistent commentary, a kind of running patter on what is happening. So “I’m going to have a cup of tea and a piece of cake and sit down in the lounge …. Then I’m going to put my shoes on ……and then ….” And I’m thinking “Why am I hearing this?.….. What am I supposed to do with this data. What’s the point of telling me?” The point I suppose is that I and many people like me (tending to be western and tending to be men) are essentially transactional. We really like it when things get done, and we move on. Others however, tending to be non-western and tending to be women, are relational. To them words are much more than a “syntactical dump” on the other person.

You especially see it when men get together to get a job done, some big DIY or building project. They don’t need to talk much, they enjoy the “getting it done” part, and there is a bonding that takes place for which few words are necessary. Women however will often gather around a job in order to talk. They still get the job done of course (I have to be careful here!), but the job is almost secondary – they are building relationship through words.

If you found this blog to your liking, try reading: When Words Have No Meaning.

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7 years ago

Mmmm maybe I’m more unusual, being more of a transactional woman! I know that I worked in two distinct secular organisational cultures — one where disagreement and debate was good and helped get things done, and never affected relationship, and one where if you disagreed it was taken as a personal insult. I much preferred the former. I find the same cultural difference in mine and my husband’s family backgrounds. In his family if you contradict or disagree, there’s an ‘atmosphere’, in mine it’s the norm for a good debate. Neither is right or wrong but the skill is in… Read more »

Rob Kates
Rob Kates
7 years ago

Right on the money that!! My wife does exactly the same!! I’ve learned to filter the info she gives me but sometimes I come unstuck when days later something I missed is of huge importance!!