Giving Feedback in Different Cultures

If you work with people from other countries, you’ve probably experienced situations where you were confused about the feedback you received from your supervisor or colleagues. Some reasons for that could be that you didn’t feel that the compliments you received were truly deserved or honest, or maybe you thought the feedback was positive but later on came to find out that you were actually being criticized. In other cases, the feedback may have been so direct that you thought you would be the next one to be fired.

I remember that I used to get upset with the feedback I received from my American supervisors and colleagues when I worked in the US because all they did was to praise me. They used to describe my work as “great” and “excellent”, but I didn’t trust their compliment because they used the words “great” and “excellent” for everything else. Not receiving criticism upset me because I couldn’t improve my work since I didn’t know what I was doing wrong.

After reading the book The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, I have come to realize that maybe I was not able to grasp the negative feedback I was receiving. The negative part of the feedback may have gone unnoticed because Americans tend to wrap their negative feedback around positive comments, which makes their criticism come subtly. It’s what they call the sandwich technique: 1 positive + 1 negative + 1 positive. In fact, I may have perceived it as subtle while Americans would probably see the criticism bright and clear because they are used to this kind of feedback language.

In the Evaluation Scale below, Erin Meyer divides cultures based on how direct their feedback tend to be. As I wrote on my previous article, you should use this scale by comparing your culture to another one, instead of analizing them isolatedly. For example, although Brazil and Indonesia are on the indirect side of the scale, we should not assume they give feedback in the same way. Based on the scale, Indonisia is one of the most indirect cultures when giving feedback while Brazil is closer to the direct side of the scale. Therefore, if a Brazilian gave feedback to an Indonisian, the lattest would probably perceive the feedback as very direct.

Still looking back on my experience in the US, I can see that I may have given negative feedback in a way that my American colleagues and students may not have appreciated. Americans tend to soften their criticism with downgrades such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Since I was not aware of this cultural aspect, my negative feedback was probably lacking downgraders and some degree of indirectedness, which may have hurt people’s feeling or even harmed the effectiveness of my feedback.

If you work with cultures that give direct negative feedback, like Russia and the Netherlands, you will probably hear more upgraders such as totally, strongly, absolutely, completely, which make their criticism even stronger: This is absolutely unacceptable; This report is completly wrong. When hearing this kind of feedback, the receiver tends to think that the other person is being rude and impolite. In situations like that, it's important to remember that politeness is a term that varies from culture to culture. For example, people from cultures that give direct negative feedback perceive it as fair, transparent, and honest because they are giving their true feedback so that one can have the opportunity to improve their work. On the other hand, it's likely that these same people would perceive indirect negative feedback as poor, confusing, and inneffective as they are not getting the information that they need to improve their performance.

Erin gives an excellent example from a colleague, Amihan Castilho, from the Phillipines, a culture known for providing indirect negative feedback. When looking at a brochure prepared by her team, Amihan would likely say: “Hmm, I thought we might possibly consider giving a bolder look to the brochure cover… maybe? What do you think?” Well, an European or American version of this same feedback would probably be: “The look of the cover isn’t working. I suggest we try this.” For somebody who is used to direct negative feedback, Amihan's suggestion may be seen as an optional change and not a change she feels strong about.

"Politeness is in the eye of the beholder. What constitutes rudeness varies enourmously from place to place."

Erin Meyer

My own thoughts on giving negative feedback is that it involves more than culture. For example, how close you are from a person, the specificity of the context, and whether you are giving individual or group feedback may also interfere in the way the feedback will be delivered and received. When working with people from other cultures, observing and trying to understand their preferred form of feedback is paramount since the effectiveness of your feedback can motivate your collaborators and, therefore, bring good results to your organization. Actually, I would say that even understanding the way you have been delivering negative feedback is also important to make you aware of the changes you could make. I have experienced significant changes in my own feedback style with my clients while helping them improve their communication in English. Over the years, I have been improving the way I deliver feedback as I came to realize that it has a direct impact on my client’s motivation to keep working on their communication.

I would like to hear from you, dear reader, how people from your culture usually give negative feedback. Please, comment below so that we can learn from each other. Once again, I strongly recommend the book The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer. She not only provides explanations, but also many strategies to deal with cultural differences. It will make a huge difference in the way you communicate with your colleagues and clients.

Fernanda Carvalho is a Fulbrighter, certified Neurolanguage® Coach with a Master's in TESOL. She believes in a holistic approach to language teaching, which involves people's development as a whole and not only language itself. Schedule your first neurolanguage® coaching session and check how she can help you improve your communication in English.