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?