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Mastering the Art of Indirect Language for Global Business Success: The Soft Sandwich

02/23/2015 06:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2015

Sandwiches are delightful creations: they have nice soft slices on the top and bottom, and something substantial in the middle. For international businesspeople, however, communication sandwiches can be a great source of confusion, misinterpretation, misunderstanding and even conflict.

Most cultures in the world -- Asians, Indians, Africans, Middle Easterners, Latinos, Southern Europeans, many Anglo-Saxons, etc. - speak in "soft sandwiches": they prefer to use indirect language when expressing criticism, talking about problems or saying "no!". Thus, they make a sandwich in this way: the top and bottom slices are polite, friendly, indirect and often have nothing to do with the issue at hand. But the middle part -- the meat and tomato and lettuce of the sandwich -- is its heart: here lies the message, the issue, the problem, softened by the soft upper and lower layers.

Say, for example, you are visiting a business partner in Cairo, Egypt. As usual, the meeting takes place in a restaurant, and after having talked about family and friends, sports and the latest jokes going around town, you ask, as steaming mint tea and delicious fresh baklava is being served, "So, how's the project running, by the way?" Smiling, your partner replies:

"Excellently, thank you. We've just received a shipment of parts from China, and are delighted with the quality. Oh, try the ones with the pistachios - my absolute favorites! It does seem that we've had a bit of a hiccup with some software, but we are working on it night and day. Like I said, we are delighted with the Chinese supplier - much better than our last one - and foresee more orders with them. How do you like the baklava? It's made fresh daily, you know. Best in the city. Do try the ones with walnuts, too. You know, my grandmother makes the finest..."

In this charming and informal chat, the Egyptian delicately informed his counterpart that the project is delayed by a software problem, which must be serious because IT is working around the clock to fix it. But this highly important piece of information was carefully sandwiched between upbeat observations, some relevant to the work, others seemingly unimportant -- except in terms of relationship building.

In other words, what people from indirect communication cultures say is not always what they mean, and what they mean is obscured or softened by how they layer "bad news."

Why do they do this? Well, for a variety of social, historical and cultural reasons having to do with respect, age, status and face-saving, people from indirect communication cultures find their communication style:

• Polite
• Friendly
• Positive
•Not hurtful or disrespectful
• Builds, maintains and strengthens relationships
• Focuses on people, not things

Yet this communication style often confuses and annoys people from direct communication cultures, such as Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, parts of the USA, etc. They might interpret indirect communicators as hesitant, weak, complex, verbose, incomprehensible or even as sneaks and liars.

Direct communicators express criticism openly, often regardless of age or status, talk directly about problems, and have little trouble saying "no!" to business associates, colleagues and even family. Indeed, they are proud of their forthrightness, believing it to be:

• Clear and simple
• "Honest"
• Time and energy efficient
• Professional
• Low maintenance
• Focused on things, not people

For instance, replace the Egyptian with a German in the above scenario, and the location not in a restaurant but in an austere office in Stuttgart. You ask, "So, how's the project running?" And your German partner frowns, shakes his head and replies: "Terrible. We have a huge software problem that is causing major delays. Our IT experts are dealing with it, but the situation is very bad."

This message has been delivered clearly and forcefully - it's the meat without the soft bread. Unfortunately, however, if you use direct language on people from indirect communication cultures, you will "hurt" them and they will think, "Why should I work with someone who throws bad news in my face?" They will interpret your direct approach as:

• Unfriendly
• "Hard"
• Rude
• Pessimistic
• Disrespectful
• Relationship destroying

And soon you will experience unanswered e-mails, unreturned calls, missed milestones, deadline issues, project delays and perhaps even conflict with your international business partner.

Using, however, the Soft Sandwich technique - not threats or pressure -- will signal that you are interested in people and relationships, that people are more important than the details of everyday working life, that people are more significant than time schedules, milestones and deadlines. If you communicate in a "softer" indirect manner, your partner from an indirect culture will enthusiastically and emotionally respond to you, thinking, "How can I say no to such a nice request?" or "Of course I'll help you meet your deadline, my friend!"

Is the indirect communication style more time consuming? Yes. It is high maintenance because people and their feelings need acknowledgement, sensitivity and careful handling. It requires highly tuned emotional radar and superior pro-active listening skills. Will you achieve your results by communicating more indirectly? Yes, because people from such cultures happily work with those who show them that they are more important than things.

If you persist in using an "A to B" direct approach, you may never ever reach "B" for in the logic of international business the shortest way between a problem and its solution is often not a straight line but the long serpentine route.

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