Giving feedback is hard.
Giving good feedback is even harder.
Giving good feedback across cultures is next to impossible.
On my first Canadian project two decades ago, my Canadian boss “suggested that I think about” doing something in a different manner. So I did. I thought about it, and I decided not to.
Not long afterwards, our Canadian client provided feedback on my first deliverable. I was elated to hear that I had “some original ideas” and that my report was “relatively fine.” They concluded with a suggestion that perhaps I “should consider rewording parts of it.”
Never the one to go fixing what’s not broken, I considered it, but ultimately decided that it would be a mistake to change something that is “fine” and “original“. Imagine my surprise, then, when the client eventually complained about me ignoring their feedback and producing a low-quality result.
In response, I was invited to a meeting with my boss and HR. I dreaded the meeting, expecting my boss to tear me a new one. To my surprise, however, the meeting was all about praising my work. Admittedly, somewhere in between all the praise, he did mention a “slight issue that I should address.” But why care about that when I’d just received the highest praise I had had in my entire ten-year career thus far? I was overjoyed. I emerged from that meeting excited about the big things I saw coming for me in my career.
Little did I know at the time, but in reality, I had actually just received as negative feedback as it gets in Canada.
You see, up until that point, I had only lived and worked in cultures defined by a direct communication style – Slavic Eastern European, Dutch, German, and French. Communication there is quite direct and purposeful. In order to avoid any potential miscommunication, these cultures focus the message on the critical feedback point, which is communicated as clearly and as early as possible. The important point is always front-loaded without small talk or “softeners.” “Your deliverable suck…“, for example, might precede the greeting. The intention here is to be upfront and helpful, and the belief is that the effectiveness of the message should never be impacted by concern for the recipient’s feelings. Communication also often uses what linguists refer to as “upgraders,” words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as “definitely,” “certainly,” “totally,” or “absolutely.” If my Dutch ex-boss had given me that same feedback from above, it would have been stated as: “You have totally failed to meet the expectations and are liable for disciplinary action. You made an absolute mess of that report. Rewrite it completely.”
In my early career, I almost never received explicit positive feedback – not because I never deserved it, mind you. Rather, in my previous jobs, positive feedback itself was ascertained by the relative absence of negative feedback. In those spaces, providing positive feedback is seen as a waste of breath. Negative feedback, however, is constant, unsolicited, and always delivered precisely, with specific examples of how you messed up and how to avoid messing up again. The most efficient path to continuous improvement is seeing the turd lining in every cloud.
I received my most significant performance bonus ever and a major promotion following a performance review meeting that lasted all of two minutes. I was told that my slouched sitting in the office looked unprofessional and that my Slavic accent was annoying. I was then thanked and escorted out of the meeting room. Fast forward to now, twenty-something years later, and I am still glowing from that performance review. The fact that my boss was able to come up with only those two negative points meant that my performance must have been absolutely extraordinary.
To make matters worse, most of my bosses and clients in my first years were active and retired military generals, intelligence officers, and police captains – those who, even in their direct-style cultures, would have been perceived as overly blunt, direct, and rude.
If you have never had the pleasure of working with Croatian, Dutch, or German military officers, then you should know that their feedback giving is brutal. And constant. Cage-fighting pre-fight press conferences are romantic serenades in comparison. Brutally honest feedback is shared mercilessly by everyone. Colleagues who are not in your reporting line – and in no way involved or impacted by your project – would have no hesitation in telling you that your data center cage is a “cable salad” (a German expression), that they are feeling fremdschämen (ashamed on your behalf), and that the quality of your work is “beneath all pigs” (another cheerful German idiom). At no point would anyone ever consider toning down their feedback because of your feelings.
And as it happens, on the recipient’s side, no one’s feelings are hurt when receiving such feedback. Honest, unvarnished feedback – even though it may be unpleasant – is actively elicited. Plain-spoken assessments of flaws are not considered hurtful; rather, they add to the recipient’s self-awareness. Feedback givers are appreciated and thanked for the time and effort they have invested in the recipient’s self-development.
Telling each other forthrightly which part of their respective work is “beneath all pigs” is considered a team-building exercise in some of those cultures.
Problems only arise when different feedback-giving cultures end up working together.
In contrast to those direct-style cultures, cultures that are defined by an indirect communication style – such as Canadian – try and avoid creating conflict by taking careful measures to remain polite throughout the feedback. This usually involves making hints which vaguely communicate their message. “Downgraders” are used in this communication style – words that work to soften the criticism, such as “kind of,” “sort of,” and “a little bit.” Additionally, “Softeners” like “would you,” “could you,” and “possibly” are used to appear more polite and cushion the message in less direct or abrupt language. Instead of saying, “send me the report,” they will say, “I wonder, could you possibly send me the report?”
For those like me whose first language is not English, these softeners create additional communication obstacles – with phrases like “would you,” “could you,” and “possibly” potentially being interpreted as suggestions rather than as intended orders.
Negative feedback in Canada is often given by focusing on positive feedback first. This is known as the sandwich method of feedback – or, colloquially, “a sh*t sandwich.” In this method, the negative part of the feedback is delivered in-between two slices of positivity. It makes sense. It’s kind, and it doesn’t make the feedback giver or the recipient feel too bad (by contrast, in Singapore – another place where I spent a large part of my career – HR trainers made a point of stressing that the worst way of delivering negative feedback is in a sandwich).
I can personally see positive aspects in both. I believe that unvarnished and immediate negative feedback helped improve my and my teams’ quality. On the other hand, the indirect style helped reduce stress and consequently improved teaming and productivity.
INSEAD professor Erin Meyer mapped some of these cultural differences in her book The Culture Map. She ranks high- and low-context cultures based on the directness of negative feedback.
After a brief stint in the US, Canada, and the UK, I ended up working in the Middle East and Asia for over a decade – in cultures that are, according to the chart, defined by the most indirect style of giving negative feedback. The culture shock was real. My direct style of providing feedback to my team members did not go down well.
I eventually adapted, however, and learned to soften my language somewhat. The second communication dimension depicted in Meyer’s chart also helped me figure out a workable middle ground. In high-context/implicit cultures, my intent was evaluated not only based on my words but also on the context of the communication – how and when I communicated the feedback; how much respect I showed by listening to them and taking the time; how I displayed that respect through seating arrangement in our meetings; how much effort I invested in their career progression; etc. All of these elements helped them understand my message in the way that I intended it – as a well-intended mentoring opportunity. Negative feedback, combined with the context through which I communicated how highly I respected them, was often perceived correctly.
I recently ended up back in Canada – this time, to settle down permanently. And here, yet again, I found myself struggling with cultural communication differences – particularly in giving and receiving negative feedback. My attempts to soften my naturally straightforward language are rarely good enough and continue to be perceived as blunt, which then impacts the delivery of the message. And once my approach to feedback triggers negative emotions, the intended message is irrevocably lost. The high-context communication that I felt had been helping me in Asia is now gone in low-context Canada, with only the explicit language remaining for me to convey my intended message.
Inspired by Nannette Ripmeester’s “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide,” I created my own translation guide. It is only slightly exaggerated.
|When a Canadian boss says:||A Canadian boss means:||Marin used to hear:|
|I was a bit disappointed to hear…||I am very angry to hear…||They were a little bit disappointed to hear…|
|Please consider…||Do exactly as I say.||It’s on me to consider and decide.|
|I would suggest…||Do exactly as I say.||It’s on me to consider and decide.|
|It is fine.||It is not good enough.||It is fine.|
|There are a few minor issues you should address.||You are a lost cause.||All good, just a few minor issues I should address.|
|Perhaps you could give it some more thought.||This is terrible and you need to completely redo it.||This is good. Just refine it a bit.|
|With all due respect…||Your idea is stupid.||They think my work deserves respect.|
|I hear what you say.||I disagree completely.||They understand and agree with me.|
|I am sure that the issue was my fault.||It was your fault.||The boss is sure it is their fault.|
|I’ll bear your feedback in mind.||I won’t do anything about it.||They will keep it in mind and apply it the next time when applicable.|
|You’ll get there eventually.||You’ll never get there.||They think I am just about to achieve it.|
|This issue worries me slightly.||You are a lost cause.||There is a minor issue.|
|This is quite good.||This is a bit disappointing.||This is quite good.|
|I almost agree…||Hell will freeze over before I agree.||They almost agree.|
|You have some original ideas.||Your ideas suck.||I have some original ideas.|
|This is amazing / excellent / great||This is acceptable.||This is the best thing they ever saw.|
I continue trying to adapt, focusing on celebrating the positives and softening any negative feedback by positioning it as an “opportunity for further improvement.”
Constructive criticism fosters continuous quality and performance improvements. It could help build teams and improve trust and workplace relationships – but only if it’s correctly understood by the intended audience. Having had the experience of working across dozens of cultures, adapting my communication style to provide culturally-adjusted negative feedback yet remains a challenge.