Cultural Differences – Silence in Conversations

by Dave

Today I was speaking to an Argentine business associate and he shared with me some frustrations. He was telling me how he communicates via email with potential Indian clients(government and company officials) and then does not get a response for long periods of time or not at all.  I told him there could be various reasons but one of the major ones I could think of was the differing attidude to gaps in conversational silence.

Different cultures have conversations at varying rates. In the United States, there is typically almost no time lag (1 or 2 seconds) between when a person stops talking and the other person starts talking. At least, that is the expectation. If no response is heard within a 1 to 3 second timeframe, the listener could be perceived as dull, slow-witted, uninterested. So Americans use a lot of filler words/sounds in conversation to indicate they are following along – Uhuh, Yup, Yeah, Right, I hear ya, Right on. Many Westen European countries too expect a quick response (UK, Spain).

In Asia, India included, silence is used as a form of respect – to carefully consider the words of others, especially in business settings. The gaps in conversational silence in India could exceed 10 seconds. Of course, it is smaller while interacting in social settings. Bottomline, Indians are comfortable with long silences in the midst of conversations, especially while senior business people or older people are present.

This attitude extends to email conversations as well. So, longer gaps are expected between when a email is received and when a response is given. Usually, an Indian business person has to consult one or more team members and/or a boss before they can give you a response. This can take time.

A related issue is conversational tone. Latins typically vary their tone from excited to calm while Indians typically adopt a neutral tone. This should not be taken to mean lack of interest – it is just a different style.

So what – how can any misunderstanding be reduced?

1) Know that differences exist with regard to silences during conversation - both face-to-face and email

2) Set expectations – let your counterpart (colleague/client) know whether you expect a response and within what timeframe, and where applicable in what format and level of detail.

3) Follow-up with a another email and/or a telephone call – People get 100 to 200 email messages a day. Your message could have slipped through the cracks. When a week or 2 weeks have passed after sending a message, I’ve wondered if the other party is angry at me. After I make a phone call, I realize my message never reached  or was caught by a spam filter.