Maria is part of an international team of biologists working on an affordable water filter that is easy-to-use and can function properly in the remote locations where it would be deployed. Many of these places have no reliable power, so the filter needs to be manually operated.

She’s worked hard to find a new way to structure polymers that will allow it to be manually operated while killing all harmful bacteria and viruses. She’s hoping that her new approach will also extend the life of the filter inserts while lowering cost.

The meeting started early at 7:30 am given the time difference with the Rotterdam office. The San Francisco team is sitting around a conference table on the 8th floor of a California Avenue building. On the large screen video conference screen, they can see that it’s already dark in the Netherlands.

After the cursory greetings, everyone reports on what they have been working on: where they are now, and if they have any challenges or need help.

When Maria shares her latest work developments, Dirk, a Dutch Bio Engineer from Utrecht is the first to share his thoughts. With a slight British accent, he says “It’s a terrible idea. Many of the agents we are trying to filter are at a size where it’s hard to cost-effectively produce a filter of this specification”. He then suggests that the two of them should set time to go over this in detail to find a better solution.

Maria is upset at this comment. She feels he was sexist and rude. She worked very hard to come up with what she felt was an innovative solution. She felt she deserved some recognition for her work. She doesn’t say much during the meeting and let it slide. At this point, talking to Dirk is the last thing Maria wants to do.

Her friend Amal works in San Francisco as well, and they often meet for an after-work drink since their offices are only 3 blocks away from each other.

They meet at ‘Local Edition’, a charming cocktail bar downtown. As Amal sips her barrel-aged Manhattan, Maria explains to her what happened.

Amal considers the situation for a moment, and remembers her own experiences working with the Dutch in Amsterdam and Algiers. She explains to Maria the reason for her reaction to her colleague’s comment might be because the norm to provide feedback in the US is different than in the Netherlands. The American way is to start with the positive and then indirectly mention the challenges and what could be improved. This approach often confuses foreigners because Americans are usually direct communicators, with one major exception — providing feedback.

In the Netherlands, they employ direct communication in all cases. They feel this is the most practical and shows respect for the time of the listener by sharing their opinion in unfiltered way. For those used to more indirect feedback, this may come across as rude.

Amal also explains that in the US, people usually take it personally when their idea is criticized while in the Netherlands, the value of an idea and that of the person who came up with it is not linked.

Dirk’s comment from a Dutch perspective was perfectly acceptable. He was trying to be polite and helpful. Unfortunately, in the cultural context of the receiver, Maria, it was not well received.

Amal shares a few stories from her time collaborating with people whose culture dictates communication styles different from her own.

It became clear to Maria that no offense was intended. Until Amal pointed it out to her, she was not aware of her own communication style. It’s something she didn’t give much thought to. Her way of doing things seemed normal to her, and she couldn’t have explained it even if she had tried!

When it comes to indirectness, she remembered how annoyed she was at her sister Anabel. When Maria would ask Anabel for her opinion on a new piece of home décor, Anabel would also use an indirect communication style. It took so much effort to get her sister to share her honest opinion! Upon reflection, Maria wishes Anabel were more like Dirk.

When Maria realized that Dirk had no ill intention and was actually trying to be polite and helpful, according to his cultural context, she started to consider the advantages of his direct feedback style. There was no room for misunderstanding, and it actually saved time. Beyond the direct feedback, Dirk was always eager and willing to help and his contributions improved her solution significantly.

Once Maria reframed the situation in this new light, she started to appreciate the no-nonsense feedback and enjoyed working with Dirk. She felt a lot of time was saved as long as you know it’s not meant to offend.

The above story is a great example of what happens every day when teams collaborate and communicate, sometimes even among groups that seem similar and are sitting in the same room. Everyone may speak the same language, but the meanings behind the words and the way the language is used can differ and create a lot of confusion and frustration.

You can imagine the waste time and energy when this happens.

Having specific skills that allow better understanding and communicating with others, brings awareness of our differences and gives you the tools to collaborate effectively in any situation without needing to know every possible situation. CQ or Cultural Intelligence is one of those skills that gives you strong self-awareness, so when you sense something offensive and unexpected, you suspend judgment and seek to understand before reacting.

Just like in this case, no offense is intended. To the contrary.

Once Maria understood the logic behind Dirk’s actions, not only was she no longer offended, but she was able to see the advantages of this way of communicating.

In the process, she got to know herself better, and she’s better equipped to handle the next time the intent is lost in translation.

Have you encountered a similar situation? What was your experience and how did you handle it?

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