June 24th, 2010
10:16 AM GMT
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Understanding cultural nuances is part of doing business anywhere in the world. I recently spoke with J.J Ngulube, the CEO of Munich Reinsurance Africa operations, about communicating across cultures.

This is our conversation about how he, as a Zimbabwean, does business with fellow Africans across the continent.

J.J Ngulube: There’s a lot of unwritten business rules and this varies from West Africa to East Africa even within.

Robyn Curnow: Like what?

JN: How you communicate. For example when somebody says 'yes.' When a West African says 'yes' you have to understand what that means.

RC: What does it mean?

JN: Is it 'yes I hear what you are saying?' Is it 'yes I agree?' Or is it 'yes I’m politely agreeing but I’m not happy with what you’re saying' ?

RC: So, it basically means no?

JN: Exactly. So even that 'yes,' you have to be able to interpret and body language is everything. It’s so easy for a non-African to go away thinking ‘I met those guys and they agreed with everything I said.'

This exchange is a wonderful description of the perils of doing business in a foreign land where language and cultural barriers can make all parties feel very confused about the outcome of a conversation.

Have you ever walked out of meeting thinking you had achieved one thing and realized later that you had agreed to something completely different?

I would love to hear your stories.

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. William Marlowe

    This is quite literally the most absurd thing I have ever heard in my life. People cannot read minds and they can misread body language worse than spoken words. To expect people, especially business people that may have never met before, to understand body language as the definitive ‘word’ in sealing a deal is not just stupid but dangerous.

    People, all people, no matter where you are from or conduct business have to learn to communicate effectively and with honesty and integrity behind their words otherwise people will simply stop doing business with them. This is one of the reasons that there is such frustration and hesitation in doing business in the Middle East and in Africa. The culture in these parts of the world have learned through firsthand experience that the further away a person you make an agreement is from you the less you have to abide by that agreement as it is harder to enforce. This in fact breaks down opportunities for business because it breaks the fundamental principle of trust and integrity with someone you are doing business. Once that is lost business fails.

    In summary, your article should be titled “Why Businesses Fail in Africa” because there is a clear lack of honesty and integrity based communication and thus agreements are not worth the time it took to come to an agreement.

    June 25, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  2. JPNDweller

    its very much the same here in Japan, in fact the subcontext of most conversations can give you more information than the words themselves

    June 25, 2010 at 1:15 am |
  3. DY

    'Yes means no' is likely to happen everywhere.
    The context, speaking tone,eye contact, body language... they will all reveal the 'truth', not just the words.

    June 25, 2010 at 2:19 am |
  4. Strictly Speaking

    While cross cultural communication is fraught with intricacies that confound relations what may be even more disturbing is the actual lack of communication between peers of similar culture/locality. All the focus on culturally variable political correctness and the inaccurate buzz-word jargon tornado is a detriment to business. Clarity is lost. Ability to interpret commands is lessened.

    All of this results in leaders talking about things they don't understand while the workers toil away endlessly compounding instructions to earn more money while doing less efficient work.

    Last year I had an argument with my entire department over the use of the word ‘either.’ I took the case that either allows for only 2 options, and the other 8 people in the meeting insisted that either has 3 or more options. Due to corporate culture I was told firstly that, "I was wrong for disagreeing with the group. When I am outnumbered I should sit quietly and accept that the company is not going that way." and secondly I was reprimanded with full paperwork to my file for further insisting that they were out of their minds because my behavior wasn’t "conducive to progressive office culture."

    So, fortunately I now work in Japan, a country where I smile and laugh and everyone thinks I am a gentle giant, even if they disagree with me. At least they smile a lot.

    June 25, 2010 at 2:19 am |
  5. George

    William, it is not about integrity or honesty. Probably you've never lived in Africa/Middle East/Asia. Inside the same culture is very easy to know what someone else is trying to say, the problem is the culture barrier. Something that is obvious for you can be unimaginable for someone else, so you better open your mind.
    Yes, it can breaks down opportunities, but if you are smart enough to insist in the right way, you can have advantages over other people that had given up trying.

    June 25, 2010 at 2:27 am |
  6. Expat

    Mr. William Marlowe commented just like a westerner who doesn't care about other cultures. This is someone who wants to do business, but according to his own way... any other way is considered 'backward'. I guess we should all model our culture and society after western countries (from whom we learn about the subprime morgage, negative saving rates, etc.)

    June 25, 2010 at 2:34 am |
  7. Karan Singh DBA

    There is nothing new about this at all. All across Asia there is rampant, what is called, 'Indirect' Communication. It exists in South America too. And Italy, Portugal and Spain. It is a matter of how much one has read about the subject as well as travelled and met people outside one's own sphere. To call it absurd is falling into the trap of what is known as 'availability heuristics'.
    To take it further, Diplomats, even from dominant Anglo saxon nations do learn the art of indirect communication.
    Business is conducted in different ways in different places. Honesty and integrity are always present, however, in different ways. For example a person from one culture may say – "He is not trustworthy. He will help his friends", while another might say, "He is not trustworthy. He won't even help his friends."
    Like some Africans, Indonesians, Indians and Japanese have different levels of Yes. To succeed in Business one has to try and understand those nuances.
    Do in Rome as the Romans do. Do in New York as the New Yorkers do. Do in Africa as the Africans do.

    June 25, 2010 at 2:54 am |
  8. Sky

    I dunno William, I hear what you're saying, but how things are and how we would like them to be are very different concepts. I do not think it is fair to refer to African-English business norms as somehow dishonest or lacking integrity. Native African languages most likely use words and concepts without English equivalent, so it's no wonder that yes could mean no in translation. Sure it would be ideal for the world to adopt a universal language for business; many of us would selfishly want that to be English.

    June 25, 2010 at 3:06 am |
  9. Susan C.

    I'm currently teaching English here in Thailand, where they want to be agreeable and tend to say 'yes' to everything, even when they mean 'no'. It's not a matter of deliberate deception, just wanting to be agreeable.

    Here's a suggestion-try doing an exercise (if you can) where one person in the group asks an indirect question to the person next to them and the person says 'yes' when it should be 'no'. Watch the lights go on when they too become totally confused by the conversation! It works great! Good luck!

    June 25, 2010 at 3:33 am |
  10. Fabio

    Expecting "yes" to mean "yes" and "no" to mean "no" is ethnocentrism? Come on, it's much more than a nuance we are talking about here. When doing business and air traffic control, let's keep yes, yes and no, no, and for everything else the subtext dependent on, but not confused with, the context. Actually, seeing subtext everywhere could be the first symptom of paranoia.

    June 25, 2010 at 3:41 am |
  11. Michel Plante

    "Yes" means anything your interlocutor wants it to mean, in Indonesia. The least desirable outcome of a business conversation from the Indonesian perspective is to lose face. Thus, agreeing with an insistant pushy westerner is a more rapid means of putting an end to an unpleasant and uncivilized conversation than throwing out objections or refusals which this smelly arrogant fellow will surely try to counter. If a document needing a signature will hasten the end of the meeting then so be it. If the arrogant westerner mistook your intentions and thought he had a verbal or even a signed deal, let him try to enforce it.

    June 25, 2010 at 4:49 am |
  12. John

    Mr. Marlowe, you'll have to understand the culture where you do business, its not only in Africa but in Asia as well. Its a matter of face (hiya), you do not want to make the other person lose face by saying no in front of him, so in an Asian context you do it circumlocutory and in as polite way as possible but never saying "no". Saying yes but actually meaning no in another manner hasn't brought down business in Asia so please do not generalize.

    I think Asians and Africans in this manner is just being polite.

    June 25, 2010 at 5:13 am |
  13. Sharif Chowdhury

    "INSHA-ALLAH BOKRA" that's the magic word in middle eastern countries. Now though literally it means "God willing Tomorrow' but in practice it is sued as NO, YES, NEVER and mostly with all other infinites ....anything but tomorrow !

    June 25, 2010 at 5:56 am |
  14. Steven Parkinson

    The bottom line is that we need to realise that 'common sense' in terms of collaobrating or communicating acorss cultures simply does not exist. We all have a different cultural reference point and a set of expectations and preferences as to how to work. We need to take the time to learn more about our own styles and how they may need to adapt working in other cultures. There is a tool to do this here http://www.countrynavigator.com and some key tips here: http://tmaworld.com/viewpoint.cfm?intviewpointid=16

    June 25, 2010 at 6:20 am |
  15. Jeremy Crowley

    I completely agree with this article except for one thing. My experience is with Ukrainians. They are a people, in business, that love to look like the "big boss" and agree to everything you say until it's time to actually implement anything. Most of the time, they have neither the time nor the money to do what they say they will. They simply agree and say yes so they don't look weak. I have learned many times that "direct" questions are the only way to go in other countries. Example: do you understand what I have said? Do you agree with my plan? You have said yes, but are we actually going to do this? Do you actually have the money to invest, because I don't have time to play games? These types of questions are bold and sometimes seem arrogant, but it will keep you from wasting anymore time with a potential agreement going south and you getting angry about it.

    June 25, 2010 at 6:31 am |
  16. True SA

    Here in South Africa, in business "yes" means simply "Yes we have a deal, now what's in it for me" (the negotiator). From anecdotal evidence It is a question often asked upfront – which effectively is a bribe.

    The willingness by North American and European multi-nationals to pay these bribes suggests it is an internationally accepted under hand business practice.

    It is estimated bribery and corruption puts a 20% premium on all goods and services sold in this country.

    Yes may mean no in some cultures, the bigger issue is the way international business does business – quite often it is corrupt. A corrupt deal in SA not only effects the price of that item here in SA, it also effects the price the manufacturer will sell its goods on home soil.

    June 25, 2010 at 7:28 am |
  17. darknessangel

    This is also like the asian "yes". I have worked with several asian colleagues and they always say yes. But it's more like a polite yes because (as far as I know) saying no is rather impolite and confrontational. I don't know how I went around this, perhaps getting out a specific deadline out of them or asking them for their input to see if they had understood. At the end you do it automatically.

    On the other hand, in France (as far as I have seen) a yes, depending on closeness or body signs, can be as good as a written contract and it's considerered rude to want something written down with the risk of getting a person to back off from the deal. Also... it can mean "no" (like yes, please go away and then I will put it in the trash bin) =D

    But is something that is very frustrating and unexpected the first time you get it. And for those of you that think it's ridiculous... you have obviously not been in contact with other cultures and should do well in hearing this very precious bit of advice from people that suffered this.

    June 25, 2010 at 8:18 am |
  18. Mohamad Khatoun

    In my experience do not accept anything in good faith regardless of where you are in this world. It is simple, what if the person that said yes dies, resigns, or gets booted out. You should request, at least an MOU prior to doing any business. Everything goes well, a contract will follow; even then it is worth insuring your contract by a reputable firm depending on its financial value.

    June 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  19. Fabio

    Anyone older than 5 or 6 should have learned how to take "no" for an answer. This is the very definition of growing up. So, paradoxically, saying "yes" to be polite can be impolite, because it's patronizing!

    June 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  20. Lara

    I'm from South Africa. Yes simply means "yes" and no simply means "no". I work with a wide range of cultures within SA: Black, White, Indian and mixed.

    June 26, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  21. sw

    Hmm. Try doing business in Ireland. It's done with a nod and a wink and a handshake. We've done business with an American firm for the last year and while we all got on very well, it was blatantly clear that at times our conversations and agreements were going completely over their heads.
    The more salient point here is that maybe it's Americans that are the problem.Maybe they are just too simplistic with too simple a view. Every culture is different.

    June 28, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  22. Alex

    I just had a similar occurrence today. I work for the marketing department for a large logistics firm in Seoul, South Korea. We've recently been talking to a Chinese research firm about subscribing to some of their information. The man in charge on our end keeps delaying and saying things like "We need more time" and "we need to still think about it."

    The woman from the Chinese firm keeps calling, and I pointed out that we hadn't outright said "No." The man on my end laughed and said it was a Korean/Japanese/Chinese thing that when people want to say "no" they just delay until the other side gets it.

    Apparently, that doesn't always hold true, as the woman keeps calling.

    June 29, 2010 at 4:51 am |
  23. Ross

    I had a similar experience dealing with a well known Chinese telecoms equipment manufacturer. They answered yes to every question about what their "God box" could do. So named because it could supposedly do everything.

    June 29, 2010 at 8:39 pm |
  24. Camb

    God Willing or Inshallah means confirmed 'NO'.

    July 1, 2010 at 6:27 am |
  25. Drakefruit

    "I'll look into it" is a synonym for NO :P

    July 1, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  26. Paul Soden

    When money changes hands.. it means yes

    July 2, 2010 at 1:29 am |
  27. agus

    In business, have a lot to consider to make a decision. many sentences that can mean "yes" or "no."

    July 4, 2010 at 5:57 am |
  28. Gordon Roy Mundeyi

    I agree with William Marlowe 100% your article should be titled “Why Businesses Fail in Africa” because there is a clear lack of honesty and integrity based communication and thus agreements are not worth the time it took to come to an agreement.

    As an African we should change a few things in our Education Curriculum to fit in The Right way to do Business not just what we do/study in most of our Business Administration Degrees.

    It is sad that in the 21st Century Africans are still struggling with the Basic Concepts of doing Business.

    July 7, 2010 at 8:18 am |
  29. BA

    Say that business fall in Africa because people are not honest is not very smart for people doing smart things " i mean business"

    July 8, 2010 at 10:13 am |
  30. Brian Singapore

    Mr. Marlowe and Mr. Mundeyi seem quite innocent of interlinguistic nuances which resulted from centuries of "doing local" business.

    My first lesson learned in Cameroon in 1982 was that it takes time to build up the trust to get a straight yes or no. It doesn't happen in a single encounter.

    Best they leave international business to us professional expatriates.

    August 2, 2010 at 4:24 am |
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