Direct vs Indirect cultures

Feedback and language differences

Ben Horowitz has talked at length about always be giving some kind of feedback. What seperates good companies from the bad ones is how news travels. In good companies, everyone knows what’s wrong with the product and they’re happy to be able to talk about it and move past the problems. In bad companies, everyone knows what’s wrong with the product, but the main issue is that no one is willing to talk about it because they’re afraid someone from management will yell at them. There’s something more interesting that I noticed in how we give negative feedback and it has a lot to do with the culture styles.

HBR did a post on this but the main points I want to focus on here are the cultural differences. Primarily between direct vs indirect cultures. It’s interesting to note that in the HBR article, Erin’s experience led to Dutch cultures being more direct whereas British cultures were indirect. In terms of negative feedback, this comes down to the linguistics of either culture influencing how we work in an organization that could have people from either side.

More direct cultures tend to use what linguists call upgraders, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly: “This is absolutely inappropriate,” or “This is totally unprofessional.” By contrast, more indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement, such as “We are not quite there yet” when you really mean “This is nowhere close to complete.” The British are masters at it. The “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide”, which has been circulating in various versions on the Internet, illustrates the miscommunication that can result:

The miscommunication that happens here mostly stems from the idea of us over-analyzing the impact of what we say. In a startup, regardless of the cultural side that we are raised in, taking the Dutch approach is the best. Bad ideas need to flow, and people need to be criticized for what they do. In saying that, we need to recognize an idea that I’ve read in Andy Grove’s High Output Management which is that in giving feedback, we need to attack problems and not people. This is true for both sides of the table, the person giving the feedback and the person recieving the feedback. A startup needs people who don’t get easily offended and take things to heart especially about the work they have done. A positive attitude doesn’t necessarily imply the use of upgraders but removing emotional content from talking about product development allows us to stay objective. This type of attitude helps us separate our private and work lives where we can be honest and more straight forward because we should.