Giving Feedback Across Cultures: Tips & Strategies

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Map" by Erin Meyer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the key to delivering clear yet considerate feedback? How does feedback differ across cultures?

The ability to deliver feedback on someone’s performance in a way the receiver understands is essential to both your and the feedback receiver’s success. If you’re too indirect, the receiver might not understand its content and if you’re too direct, you may come across as cruel or incompetent.

In this article, we’ll look at the two main ways cultures give feedback and present some strategies for giving feedback across cultures.

Direct Negative Feedback and Indirect Negative Feedback

Meyer places cultures on a feedback spectrum and defines the two extremes as direct negative feedback and indirect negative feedback.

(Shortform note: Why are Americans direct in their general communication but indirect when it comes to giving feedback? It might be because giving feedback, particularly negative feedback, is more emotionally charged than most business communications. This is partly due to our fear that the feedback-receiver will react poorly. This fear may be evolutionary: We know that pain triggers a fight-or-flight response, and we don’t want to become that trigger. We don’t want to be a threat.)

Direct Negative Feedback

According to Meyer, people from cultures that prize direct negative feedback state negative feedback clearly and explicitly.

Meyer also states that these cultures tend to use strengtheners, which are words that strengthen the feedback, such as “totally” or “clearly.”

Furthermore, people from these cultures may deliver feedback publicly or jokingly. But someone who’s used to indirect negative feedback might perceive direct negative feedback as overly harsh or cruel.

(Shortform note: Negative feedback of all types offers benefits. A Harvard Business Review article points out that negative feedback improves your argument, especially when it comes from different fields: You’re forced to adjust and clarify your idea, which strengthens it. Negative feedback may also help you realize how much an idea matters to you. If you remain neutral when someone challenges your idea, it may not be as important or as good as you think.)

Indirect Negative Feedback 

According to Meyer, cultures that use indirect negative feedback tend to deliver their messages in a subtler manner. They often couch these messages in positive affirmations. 

Meyer also states that these cultures tend to use weakeners, which are words that mitigate or qualify the feedback, such as “slightly” or “in my opinion.” 

Furthermore, these cultures usually provide feedback in private. If the feedback is for the group, it’s delivered to the group; if the feedback is for the individual, it’s delivered only to the individual. According to Meyer, this is especially true in high-context cultures and applies even in cases of positive feedback. In many high-context cultures, people dislike having attention drawn to them.

But someone who’s used to direct negative feedback might not understand that indirect negative feedback is negative at all because they find it to be too subtle.

(Shortform note: There are potential benefits to indirect negative feedback. One study suggests that indirect feedback might be more effective because if you receive indirect feedback, you have to take more initiative to learn from and implement it. Another study suggests that indirect feedback “prompts deeper cognitive processes and learning” and thus may “encourage autonomous learning behavior.”)

How to Handle Giving/Receiving Feedback in Different Cultures

Meyer divides cultures into four categories based on their positions on both the feedback and communication spectrums. 

First, we’ll discuss the overarching principles that apply to giving feedback across cultures. Because Meyer’s strategies for each of the four categories are slightly repetitive, we’ll then focus on strategies to use in two specific situations: low-context cultures that fall in the middle of the feedback spectrum, and high-context cultures that tend towards indirect negative feedback.

Principles for Giving and Receiving Feedback in Different Cultures 

Principle #1: Be transparent about how you normally provide feedback. 

Explain how you normally provide feedback and the cultural norms where you’re from so that others can interpret your feedback in the way you intended. (Shortform note: Meyer recommends being transparent about your own cultural norms repeatedly throughout The Culture Map. This indicates how important transparency is for communicating effectively in globalized business environments: You have to understand which aspects of your own business skills are culturally influenced.)

Principle #2: Don’t try to imitate the other culture.

If you try to provide more direct feedback than you’re used to, you might offend someone. Even in cultures that are used to direct negative feedback, Meyer notes, there are still subtle rules of etiquette that govern what’s acceptable and what’s offensive. As an outsider, you don’t have a clear handle on these rules. So you can try using one extra strengthener in your feedback, but to avoid offense, don’t go further.  

(Shortform note: Another way to think about this is to find the “zone of appropriateness,” which is a concept used to describe the spectrum of acceptable behavior within a culture. Then, go one step further in either direction than is comfortable for you.)

You might also see isolated instances of direct negative feedback in cultures that tend to provide indirect negative feedback. Meyer explains that since many cultures with indirect negative feedback are also strongly hierarchical, there are situations in which managers provide direct negative feedback. 

However, as an outsider, you don’t understand the complicated interplay between these factors so you’re better off not trying as you might offend someone. 

(Shortform note: Meyer insists that you don’t want to imitate the other culture, but others state that there might be situations in which it is appropriate. To judge this for yourself, first ask: How flexible is the culture? Then, clarify what you’re trying to accomplish. How will imitation help or hinder this accomplishment? Starbucks designed their first Chinese stores to look like teahouses. But this attempt at cultural connection offended the Chinese, who had many tea houses already and craved the full Western Starbucks experience.)

Principle #3: Think of feedback as a gift.

People from direct negative feedback cultures tend to view this directness as a sign of respect: The other person respects them enough to be clear and honest with them.

So when you receive direct negative feedback, Meyer recommends, don’t assume they’re being cruel. Rather, take the feedback at face value and view it as a sign of respect. 

(Shortform note: If you have trouble accepting direct negative feedback, you may want to cultivate a growth mindset. People with growth mindsets think that they can change and grow, while people with fixed mindsets think the personal qualities they’re born with are unchangeable.)

How to Give Feedback in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada

According to Meyer, the U.S., the U.K., and Canada present unique challenges because they’re low-context cultures that fall in the middle of the feedback spectrum. If you have subordinates from any of these countries, Meyer suggests the following strategies when providing feedback.

Strategy #1: Express both positive and negative feedback explicitly.

Make your positive feedback just as explicit and clear as your negative feedback. But this doesn’t mean you should lie. Find something that is truthful, even if it feels small to you.

Strategy #2: Time your feedback strategically. 

Always express your positive feedback first. And consider how balanced your feedback is over time: If you express negative feedback twice over the course of one week, you should also express positive feedback twice. 

(Shortform note: Even if you follow the principles above, you may find that your employee still struggles with your negative feedback. American business book Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work suggests providing a ratio of 80% positive feedback to 20% negative feedback, which implies that Americans might view even a 50-50 split negatively.)

How to Give Feedback in High-Context Cultures With Indirect Negative Feedback

Unlike the U.S., the U.K., and Canada, many countries have a high-context culture and give indirect negative feedback. In these cultures, Meyer suggests the following strategies:

#1: Give feedback gradually. 

Instead of bombarding your subordinate with the message all at once, drip it bit by bit. Allow your subordinate to piece together the picture on their own.

#2: Take the focus off the feedback.

Meyer specifically suggests taking the subordinate out for food and drink. The point is to have something else you can focus on—making feedback the crux of the conversation intensifies it. Then, once you deliver your feedback, don’t mention it again anywhere else.

#3: Don’t mention the negative.

Praise the positive, and don’t touch on the negative at all. Your subordinate will be able to read between the lines and infer the negative feedback without you stating it directly. 

For example, let’s say your direct report led a meeting that went very well in the beginning but stalled halfway through. Praise the thing they did well in the first half that they struggled with in the second half.   

What to Do When Your Feedback Doesn’t Get Through

Even if you follow Meyer’s tips, you may still have trouble giving feedback effectively. The problem with de-emphasizing feedback, giving it gradually, and not mentioning negatives is that you risk the receiver not reading between the lines or not understanding the feedback correctly.

Some experts recommend hiring a “cultural translator” who can help explain the cultural norms of the country involved. If you have access to one, this might be a great way to ensure your evaluations are being delivered and perceived appropriately—and that you’re understanding your own evaluations correctly, too.

You may also find that it’s easier to give written rather than verbal feedback. One group consisting of both Japanese and non-Japanese professors suggests you take this approach in Japan, a high-context, indirect-feedback culture. Written feedback suggests authority and rule, which the Japanese find comforting in a workplace environment. The same article also suggests 360-degree feedback, which is both submitted and delivered anonymously. This helps people deliver and receive constructive criticism in a way that feels safe for all involved.
Giving Feedback Across Cultures: Tips & Strategies

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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