Why Culture Factors Make Agreeing Plans so Difficult


Many times people have asked me why it is so hard to get an answer to an email.  There are many reasons for this. It could be simply that the other person is too busy or that your mail is not written very well, but in international business the reasons are often cultural. Sometimes it is because of different ideas about hierarchy or the different value attached to relationships in business (see Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email).  But there is also another culture factor involved that I am seeing increasingly often – the differing attitudes to planning.

People who come from the “synchronic” cultures where flexibility is considered a strongly positive value tend to be comfortable about plans that are sketched in roughly and then revised many times.  In contrast, people who come from strongly “sequential” cultures tend to treat schedules as something more rigid that must be respected and feel uncomfortable about changes.

One of the effects of this difference is in the way people plan future events and this, in turn, explains why sometimes it can be so hard to get a response to an apparently simple message involving plans.  When a synchronic person sends a plan it is maybe just a tentative schedule and they expect to revise it later when they have more information.  For this reason they can often get back to you very quickly, but the plan they propose is not necessarily definitive.  On the other hand a strongly sequential person will not send any plan until they are certain that it is definitive because they do not think that it can be changed.

As long as people work with others sharing the same values there are no problems, but there are often conflicts and misunderstandings when the two types of people are trying to plan together.  These misunderstandings are in roughly two classes. First there are the situations where a synchronic person “floats” a tentative plan and asks for inputs then a sequential person takes a long time to respond because they believe that they must give an absolutely final response that can never be changed. The first person is expecting a quick response along the lines of “this looks ok but I’ll need to get back to you later” but instead there is a very long silence.  The second misunderstanding is when the sequential person sends out a plan that is actually very final but synchronic readers misinterpret it as a rough proposal and not confirmed. Again there might be a long delay because they are waiting for a final version later that never comes.

Waiting for answers to emails that never come is a common problem in intercultural communications.  There are often different explanations in each case but the general solution is always the same:  understanding.  If you understand the cultural background of a person it is easier to interpret correctly their communications.  And when that is not enough a good real-world solution is to talk and ask what is actually meant and understood.  This can be done through a discussion of the shared and unshared values and practices of people who work together, either through a formal workshop or an informal discussion. 


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For lectures, workshops, coaching and writing on this and other communication topics visit http://andrewhennigan.com, email conseil@andrewhennigan.com or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81



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