First, an Anecdote

Just last week, I was at a typical SAP meeting (via Skype) involving participants from different parts of the world. Attending were folks from Germany, China, the US (me), and perhaps more. The goal was to get review comments and approval to submit a business case. After presenting each page, I stopped to ask for questions, concerns, and comments. Silence—absolute silence. You know, crickets!

Well, trying to be a culturally sensitive sort, I probed further, knowing that some of my Chinese colleagues may be quiet when they have concerns, but they are trying to express them in a careful and correct way. I really wanted to be sure that everyone was either on board or that we had considered and addressed their concerns. Still crickets.

Finally, a German colleague said, “Jan, you know that when Germans are silent they are okay with everything.” The other German colleague agreed—and finally the Chinese colleague said he was very much fine with everything.

Of course, from many years of experience, I knew that my German colleagues were usually not shy about expressing themselves, but I somehow never fully realized that silence itself was good. And I also understood that as a “recovering auditor,” I was uncomfortable with silence being a confirmation. After all, auditors learn early that a negative confirmation (that is, no answer) is not as good as a positive confirmation (yes or no). I was just looking for positive confirmation.

A Failure to Communicate


“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” 

(Famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke)

This caused me to think back to earlier times when I had been confused about the meaning of gestures across cultures. As a native US person, it’s ingrained in my consciousness that an up-down nod of the head means yes, and a side-to-side nod means no. This is true, as I’ve read, in the majority of cultures—but not all!

So have I ever been in software requirements discussions (yes, face to face) with colleagues from India who have been nodding, which I took as full agreement? Yes, sad to say, I have. At the time, I remember thinking everything was going great until near the end, someone said, “We can’t do this in the way you suggest because the technology won’t support it.” Oops. Color me embarrassed—and that’s without getting into other possible gestures!

And then there’s the Mars and Venus thing. One of my favorite books about gender-related communication issues is You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen. A typical conversation my husband and I would have is something like this:

Me:  (While on the road traveling somewhere).  “Are you hungry?”

Him: “No.”  (This usually followed by getting a response like “Fine!” as I look away and cross my arms….)

What went wrong? This was only five words! He didn’t understand that my question wasn’t really a question just about him—it was an indirect opening to a negotiation because I was hungry or at least considering where to stop next. I didn’t understand that he was only replying to what he thought was a direct and clear question.

By the time we consider other factors like gender, local idioms, cultural values, different reactions to showing emotion, humor, and the level of directness in speech, it’s a wonder meetings can be productive at all!

Communication and GRC

So how does this relate at all to GRC, you might ask. My short answer is that communication relates to almost everything we do, in business and in personal life. Regardless of your role in business, it is equally important to understand and to be understood. Each year as our businesses expand and we communicate with distributed teams, we need to be more sensitive to variations in communication styles while always honing our communication skills.

In a “GRC world,” where we often document things via email or surveys, things can be even tougher in some respects. In the absence of face-to-face meetings and the ability to identify questions and missed communications in real time, it is even easier to be misunderstood. In fact, it’s well documented that some e-mail communications cause downright conflict.

My initial advice (to myself, and to you if you’re interested), is to

  • Stick to polite yet direct speech, minimizing the use of idioms, and with adequate references to more complete information.
  • Try to anticipate questions that might arise, and deal with them up front.
  • Ideally, for GRC purposes, do ask for direct confirmation of key findings or decisions.
  • Then, if at all possible, discuss things face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice, and listen or look for verbal and non-verbal cues that might indicate a lack of understanding or acceptance.
  • And should the responses be confusing to you, be sure to reach out and clarify as soon as possible.

Whatever happens, do not immediately assume lack of cooperation or animus—it just may be a failure to communicate.

In the Interest of Direct Communication…

I mean no disrespect to any group mentioned. These views are not meant to be sweeping generalizations indicating how members of a cultural or gender group behave (after all, we are all individuals!), but rather just top-of-mind examples from my personal experiences, most of them at SAP.  It’s been a wild ride—and I’m learning something new every day!

Learn More

Read the rest of our GRC Tuesday blogs for tips and info on a variety of subjects ranging from security, the three lines of defense, GDPR, and more.

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