, , , , , , , , , ,

Lie to Me

By Terri Morrison
© Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved

What constitutes a lie? Per the dictionary, it’s, “An untrue statement made with intent to deceive.” But, if you lie to spare someone’s feelings (“Does this dress make me look fat?” “Of course not, you’re gorgeous!”) is it still wrong? Probably not in that case, but it is in court. If you lie on the stand in the US, in front of a jury of your peers, you can be prosecuted for perjury. Most of us don’t need to be reminded by a lawyer, or by Moses (“Thou shalt not bear false witness…”), that lying is wrong, but the justification for lies and their ramifications are different around the world. Here’s what you need to know:

Lying with a Purpose
Imagine that you’re in Japan where preserving a harmonious work environment is a high priority. You, a mid-level employee, find yourself caught in a difficult situation. The boss wants to know why a product’s delivery is delayed and you know full well that it’s the fault of your peer, the scheduling manager. (He overlooked the order.) In Japan you must avoid humiliating other employees in public. Accusing the scheduling supervisor of a big mistake would cause conflict and make you look like an immature, critical whiner. Additionally, you don’t want to be the one to deliver bad news to the boss, so what do you do?

As distasteful as it might seem, you apologize to the boss for the problem (even though you did not cause it), and then you lie about the situation in order to preserve the relationships. Later, you can try to help resolve the problem in private with the scheduling manager, but in public, lies are often allowed in order to sustain the harmony of the group and save everyone from a publicly unpleasant situation.

There are also times when agreement is critical – even if you don’t agree.  For example, never debate or negate your Korean boss in front of her or his subordinates.  If you desperately feel the need to correct the boss – do it in private.  And don’t make a habit of it.  Your boss is higher in the hierarchy than you, and it is your job to work hard, listen carefully, and develop a rapport.  This can only come after a period of harmony has been established.  And harmony comes from agreement – not criticism and strife.

Perhaps, Maybe, I’ll Try, and Yes
Since many cultures don’t approve of using the word “No” in conversation (or negotiations) they have devised other means of communicating their displeasure or disapproval. In India, Japan, and many other cultures, appearances are extremely important. People will go to great lengths to ensure that no potentially insulting or embarrassing statements are made, which includes the word “no.” This is vital to know during final contract negotiations. Since your Asian counterparts often have trouble with a flat-out “no,” you should prepare many alternatives during the contract stage. This gives your Chinese counterparts room to gracefully negate several options with dignity. If you don’t, they may superficially agree to the contract, just to save everyone from a controversial and conflict-ridden finish, but the signatures and product deliveries may never go through. Of course, the word “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean, “I agree with you.” A closer meaning would be, “I heard you.” If you really put pressure on a traditional Japanese negotiator, and he wants to balk, he may say something like, “It will be difficult” or, “I am not certain that would be possible.” Wise up. Those statements are polite but firm ways to say “no” in much of Asia.

In India, business is highly personal. It’s also conducted at a more leisurely pace than in the US, along with a great amount of hospitality. If you have established a personal relationship with your client, and then something comes up that requires a definitive yes or no answer, it’s highly probable that your Indian associate will tell you, “Yes, of course,” even if he knows full well the answer should be “no.” Why does this happen? Why would a “friend” lie to you? Because the word “no” has harsh implications in India. Evasive refusals are more common and are considered more polite.  An Indian associate would have a hard time directly refusing or negating an offer, particularly on a social level. So, if you invite a group of Indian associates to a social event, and they say “We’ll try to make it,” don’t be surprised if they don’t show up. Being vague and avoiding a time commitment is a normal way of indirectly refusing an invitation. And, the statement, “I’ll try,” is an acceptable refusal.

No problem, No issue, No Way!

The above phrases can be incredibly confusing to someone who is not completely conversant in English.  Even though the words “no problem” indicate agreement for native English-speaking negotiators, Chinese executives can interpret them as a refusal.  Several years ago, this response to multiple contractual requests actually made a Chinese negotiator so angry, he left the table.  It took everyone a while to sort out the inadvertent insult – apologize –  and get back to work.

“No” avoidance is common behavior in Indonesia as well, where it’s impolite to disagree in public – particularly with your supervisors. Most Indonesians would definitely prefer to tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than bring you any distress. Consequently, they rarely say “no.” You’re expected to be perceptive enough to differentiate a polite, “Yes, but I really mean no,” from an actual “Yes!” This is rarely a problem when speaking in the native language, Bahasa Indonesia, since it has at least twelve ways to say “no” and many ways to say, “I’m saying yes, but I mean no.”

Unfortunately, this subtlety is lost in English. Many Westerners interpret this as being deceitful, but Indonesians, along with Japanese, Chinese, Indians, and millions of other international businesspeople, aren’t overtly trying to lie to you — they’re just being polite and going by their own countries’ standards. It can be quite a contrast to the sometime painfully direct US communication style of  “Say what you mean and mean what you say!”  Sometimes, a little diplomacy can be pleasant for a change — honestly!

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *