Transmitter and receiver orientations in communications

In reading about Geert Hofstede’s Dimensions, I came upon the following interesting proposition:

  • Western communications has a “transmitter orientation” – the responsibility is on the speaker to make him/herself understood.
  • Asian communications has a “receiver orientation” – the responsibility is on the listener to extract meaning from the communiqué.

In the first context, this means I as the transmitter have to seek confirmation and feedback as to the successful transmission of my message. This can be watching for specific non-verbal cues, or asking direct questions such as “Do you know what I mean?”

In the second context, the person I am speaking to must try their best to get what I am saying to them. This brings me to an interesting observation.

In recent weeks, I have been interviewing candidates to fill a programmer position. All of the candidates are Asians of various nationalities. They generally have a good working knowledge of English.

What I noticed was this – about half the time, a candidate would make a quick assumption after hearing or understanding a question only partially. They will merrily go down the wrong path answering what they assumed to be my question. Without stopping to ask for clarification or more information.

50% is a significant amount. I wonder if this is a direct example of the receiver taking responsibility for understanding a message. Instead of asking for more information, they simply did the best they could with the information they have. Because they are working from a receiver orientation, they tend not to seek clarification if they thought they understood enough of the message.

It is interesting to have to switch from a transmitter orientation (when working in Australia) to a receiver orientation here in Singapore. I have to be more careful with using the appropriate words (and avoid colloquial words that may be too specialised in a Western context), and stringing instructions or information flow logically and clearly. I have to be hyper-vigilant of non-verbal cues, to anticipate incorrect assumptions. I have to get used to asking directly for confirmation of understanding, including interrupting their response mid-flow to steer them in the direction I needed.

Perhaps this is why some Asians thing Westerners are rude? And perhaps this is also why Asians can come across as “not quite getting it” some of the time. We are talking about a need to reconcile two quite different orientations here.

Now that I am sensitised to it, I am noticing Asian waiting staff at restaurants doing the same “make an assumption based on hearing two words” thing. This means I have to be very concise when placing orders. And avoid discussing anything to do with the menu. Interestingly, the incidence of wrong things arriving at the table has decreased somewhat.

I wonder how this difference in orientation affect visual and written communications? Has anyone, from either orientation, got any insights to share?

8 comments

  1. d said:

    “This means I have to be very concise when placing orders. And avoid discussing anything to do with the menu.”

    I’m Asian myself, and… you avoiding a discussion with me, just because I’m Asian, is offensive and seems racist :/

    I’ve been living in New Zealand all my life, and haven’t really thought about this topic since I can’t say that I’ve noticed these differences…

    Anyhows, interesting read. By the way I do enjoy discussions by the way, and wouldn’t mind one with a customer/client/stranger ;)

  2. Zern said:

    I fail to see how “avoid discussing anything to do with the menu”, for the sole purpose of minimising confusion, is racist?

    This means sticking to ordering what is on the menu. And not requesting changes to the way things are prepared etc. Not overloading the wait staff with additional information.

    I would have thought this to be considerate, being easy going, and being aware of the specific situation of being in a restaurant staffed by people who have a different way of communicating?

    I don’t get how you can read this as “I refuse to have any discussions with anyone who is Asian”? Maybe you can enlighten me.

    BTW I don’t think the racism card is a nice one to be bandying around willy-nilly. It is offensive in itself. It often shuts down perfectly reasonably discussions. And touchy overuse leads to the “crying wolf” syndrome and dilutes its impact at the times when it is necessary and warranted.

  3. Ham said:

    Yep…this is real!!! When I came across this concept in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” I could relate immediately, and had to go online to look for more information. My wife of 16 years, Asian, and I, Western European descent, have this “problem” regularly.

    Incidentally, d’s negative reaction is a surprise to me too. I did not understand exactly what was meant by “avoid discussing …”, but rather than assign a meaning as d did, I just ignored it. Hmmm, I wonder if this has anything to do with cultural differences in communication style?

    Anyway, now that I know there’s something much bigger than me or my wife causing this “problem” I can at least be a little more understanding. I don’t know that I will be any less frustrated when it happens though. Can anyone recommend a strategy for bridging this gap?

  4. Alvin Saldanha said:

    I work in advertising, and this fascinates me. One of the most difficult things to achieve inside an advertising company is to get the briefing process right. Be it brand strategists or client servicing people, they seem to do everything within their power to AVOID a thorough, disciplined briefing. And the creative crew is forever lamenting insipid, lame, thoughtless and most erroneous briefs.

    It just struck me: the briefers are always demanding a reciever orientation from the people they are briefing. And the nature of an advertising briefing is essentially that it is a transmitter orientation situation.

  5. Mits said:

    Zern, Interestingly,the sheer fact that “d”, being an Asian, responded in a “receiver orientation” mode, gives your proposition an unexpected testimonial;)

  6. Zern said:

    Further to Alvin’s comment: perhaps as the advertising industry (or perhaps all the various design disciplines as they are generally practised) is a Western concept to begin with, the whole briefing process assumes a transmitter orientation. “You tell me explicitly what you want, and I design it for you just as you asked.”

    Which must also mean that those successful designers working in Asian cultures must have developed a technique that works with a receiver orientation. “You tell me some things around what you want, I listen between the lines, make some assumptions based on the relationship we already have…”

  7. Adri said:

    I am a psychotherapist and am teaching psych at university in Brisbane, Australia. Gladwell’s explanations have been invaluable to helping students understand the cultural barriers to communication. Lots of aha moments for us all. Brilliant work and so relevant to our field.

  8. Zern said:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Adri.
    I love “aha” moments.

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