Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sometimes you're better off keeping quiet and ignoring the clock

What's worse: (A) getting interrupted when you talk or (B) getting no reaction? For Americans, the answer is probably B. While incessant interruptions can be annoying, silence can be destructive. When we speak in the US, we expect eye contact with audience members, and laughs, applause, and questions at the end. When the audience just sits in silence, it vexes us a great deal.

In some cultures, though, staying quiet while another speaks is of the utmost importance. In a recent blog post on the Harvard Business Review website, cross-cultural expert Erin Meyer tells of her frustrating experience presenting to a Chinese colleague who waited until the very end to assist in her presentation. The reason, she learned, wasn't malicious. Rather, Chinese people are taught to  sit quietly and wait until someone finishes speaking before saying anything.

The same can be said for how different cultures appreciate time. In another post, Meyer discusses the relative importance of time around the world, by comparing recent speaking engagements in the US and Brazil. In the US, the conference organizer kept Meyer on time with signs that indicated how many minutes were left in the session. In Brazil, her presentation got off to a late start, and exceeded the time allotted. But there, she was told she could have spoken even longer, given the interest of the crowd. Below is an excerpt from that Meyer's blog post:
In some cultures — such as the German, Dutch, British, Danish, Australian, and my own American cultures — we tend to value structure over flexibility. But in many of the world’s fastest growing countries, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Russia and Nigeria, there is much more emphasis put on being flexible than on being structured.  In these cultures strongly emphasizing punctuality signals an inability to adapt and even a lack of priorities. 
Like most people, I don't like being late. But to me, the question of when to speak and when to shut up isn't just a question of time; it's a matter of respect. Arriving late to a class is unpleasant, even disrespectful; but leaving when an instructor goes a few minutes over time is just rude. So next time you're looking at the clock, think about the speaker who's waiting for a reaction and try to come up with a good question for the end.

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