Monday, September 29, 2008

Intonation - Deal Clincher or Deal Breaker?

Not many of us think of the intonation we use when conversing in our native language. We take it for granted that our sentences are understood the way we want them to be. Those who have studied psychology and communication recognize that even in our native language our communication can be received very differently than the way we intended. That’s why a basic maxim in sales is to ensure the person to whom we are talking has really understood the content and intent of what we are saying. Similarly, we need to be careful to truly understand what our client is saying to us.

While emotions and personality change with every individual, culture can also create big misunderstandings. Even within one country, there are “generic” culture differences. A person from one culture which is direct and emotional may be perceived very badly by a person from a culture which is reticent, and in which any show of emotion is considered negative.

This challenge is greatly exaggerated when communicating in different cultures. For example, a study was done in the UK about 20 years ago interviewing natives from the Indian subcontinent, living in a part of London, and “ethnically English” inhabitants of the same suburb. Several bank workers of Indian origin said that the “English” customers were impolite and very abrupt with them. Ironically the “English clients” said they found the native Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi speakers very disrespectful with them. The study finally showed that intonation and literal translation were to blame for this damaging situation. The Hindi speakers were speaking their English sentence exactly as they would have spoken it in Hindi. In Hindi they were using the most respectful and friendly greeting possible with the most polite and respectful intonation. Unfortunately direct translation sounded somewhat direct and impolite in English. For their part those “English” clients who were upset, did not once seek to communicate further to understand the the real intent of their bank clerk. They chose to immediately react as if mortally affronted. This left the bank clerk wondering what on earth they had done to deserve such a reaction.

The lesson from this short example is to never act on first impressions. If we sense distance, upset or anger, first take the time to understand the person more. Ask questions. Be humble. Ask how communication works in that culture. Ask if there’s any “golden rules” to know. Should I be direct? Should I be indirect? Should I ask a lot of questions? Should I take the initiative? Should I wait to respond? Should I look serious? Should I put a smile in my voice? Those of other cultures are more than happy to come at least 50% of the way towards us. It’s good to make sure we are willing to go at least 50% of the way towards them.

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