The Anglo-EU Translation Guide, which has been making the rounds on the web in various forms for several years, instructs Europeans about how they should interpret feedback from a Brit. “Could we consider other options?” really means “I don’t like your idea.” “With the greatest respect…” translates into “I think you are an idiot.”
Humor aside, the way people give and receive criticism in different cultures is one of the harder aspects of cross-cultural dealings in a business setting. Some cultures phrase their criticism so gently that it might be misconstrued as praise by someone from another culture. In other cultures, feedback is very straightforward and no one is expected to take offense.
Erin Meyer wrote an article on the Harvard Review blog about this very subject, “How To Say ‘This Is Crap’ In Different Cultures.” She writes:
Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. The Chinese manager learns never to criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.
One clue to the type of culture you’re dealing with is the words that modify the criticism. Direct cultures tend to strengthen their negative feedback with strong words like “totally” and “absolutely.” Indirect cultures use softening words such as “a little,” “sort of.” Where do you fit in?