4 things to think about if your ‘rude’ coachee isn’t really being rude

Imagine your first conversation with a new coachee… The ‘problem’ is said to be low Emotional Intelligence. According to your coachee, he or she’s been described as having a distinct lack of empathy for others and a tendency to be overly blunt in interactions with work colleagues. cartoon of 3 consultants talkingThe coachee now doubts him or herself, is wary of interpersonal interaction for fear of being perceived as overbearing and rude, and wants help with this chronic ‘rudeness’ in order to improve his or her chances of moving into management.

Looks like an open and shut case? Let’s not be too hasty. Before we as coaches unthinkingly accept the story at face value, decide this ‘rudeness’ is ‘wrong’, and allow ourselves to fall into thinking of ways to assist the coachee with anger management or improve sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others, do we need to stand back and take a deep breath? Might there be a missing ingredient in the scenario described above?

What if ‘being rude’ in this case was not actually ‘being rude’ at all? What if, rather than being chronically rude, our coachee has been grappling with the difficulties of adjusting to the communication norms of a different culture?

In a previous post I looked at the ideas of Richard E. Nisbett, considering ways in which Asians and Westerners may think differently. This time I’ll be touching on the concept of ‘high-context’ and ‘low-context’ cultures, the implications for individuals of moving between them, the kinds of adjustments that may be necessary to ensure relatively smooth intercultural communication, and what coachees such as our friend above might be encouraged to do to improve their situation.

Whether or not someone is ‘being rude’ may depend on context, and the ‘solution’ for that individual may entail something other than shifting behaviour from what one culture labels ‘bad’ to what it labels ‘good’…

1. High-context and low-context cultures

These terms refer to the relative value cultures place on indirect and direct communication. Although the following definitions may be generalisations (and there are variations even within cultures), it’s useful to bear them in mind when dealing with individuals originating from different cultural contexts:

  • High-context cultures     tend to have indirect communication styles – relying on implicit communication and nonverbal cues. This means the words used don’t carry the full message. Understanding what is meant needs attention to and understanding of such things as gesture, eye movement and facial expression, as well as a great deal of background information, which is embedded in cultural insight and ‘wisdom’ that may not be available to ‘outsiders’. Cultures which are generally considered to be ‘high-context’ are Asian, African, Middle Eastern, central European and Latin American.
  • Low-context cultures     rely on explicit communication. Much more of the message is spelled out and defined in the words used, and the nonverbal elements aren’t as significant to understanding meaning as in high-context cultures. It’s relatively easy for ‘outsiders’ to access material which helps interpretation of context because communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas and opinions. ‘Low-context’ cultures are generally those with western European roots (such as the USA and Australia), as well as Germany and Scandinavia.

Interestingly, for the scenario described above, the UK (where I’m currently based) is more ‘high-context’ than, say, the USA or Germany, but far less so than Asian, Middle Eastern or Latin American countries.

2. Moving between high-context and low-context cultures

It’s clear given these definitions that moving between high-context and low-context cultures could have significant consequences for an individual. Communication modes that were functional in one context may well become dysfunctional in the new setting.

For example, individuals socialised in high-context cultures tend not to verbalise meaning so much as understand it from context and nonverbal cues. This relies on a common understanding between members of the group. 4 people holding pieces of jigsawWhere that common understanding does not exist in the new lower-context cultural setting, someone unused to verbalising views and needs might find them overlooked. This may not only cause stress and frustration for the individual concerned, but also leave co-workers and more senior colleagues with the impression that the newcomer is passive and inarticulate.

Returning to the case of our ‘rude’ coachee, we need to remember that individuals socialised into low-context cultures tend to verbalise meaning. Much less is left to interpretation of context and nonverbal cues. It’s expected that individuals will say what they mean rather than implying it, without such directness causing personal offence. If an individual moves to a higher-context culture, however, a similar level of directness might cause problems. The individual might easily earn a reputation for being blunt and rude, which would impact negatively on her or his chances of being viewed as ‘manager’ material in the new setting.

3. Making adjustments

Without taking a step back and thinking things through, it would be easy for us as coaches to assume that ‘rude’ is ‘rude’ wherever it’s found. It would be easy to conclude that a coachee with the kinds of issues mentioned above just needs to adopt the behavioural norms of the new cultural setting (which are ‘better’ anyway), and accept that the inherited ‘rude’ behaviour is just ‘wrong’.This would, however, be unwise, and more than likely not in the best interests of the coachee.

2 figures with phone made of tin cans and ropeIn the specific context of enabling functional intercultural communication, what we should be talking about is cultivating coachee flexibility and resilience. We should be encouraging individuals to develop a spectrum of intercultural understanding and a repertoire of behaviours suited to the particular contexts in which they might be working, wherever they may be. High-context cultural behaviour is not inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and neither is low-context cultural behaviour. Each only becomes dysfunctional when practised inappropriately in a cultural setting to which it does not belong.

4. What the coachee might do

So what could the coachee above do to improve her or his situation? If the individual is from a lower-context culture than that of the UK, it may be a question of a combination of the following:

  • working to increase understanding of the subtler aspects of the language spoken in the new culture, including trying to get a handle on the subtle differences in usage between words that on the face of it mean the same thing (which is very important when learning to speak English more idiomatically)
  • understanding the importance of ‘politeness strategies’, and adding to sentences words such as ‘please’, ‘thankyou’, ‘perhaps’, and ‘maybe’ in order to qualify the directness of communication with.expressions that show regard for those who are listening
  • undertaking exercises in listening to and watching interactions in the host community that exemplify best practice, and discussing which aspects of the interactions make the difference in facilitating smooth interactions
  • practising interaction strategies for the new cultural setting to learn how to react appropriately by, for example, listening patiently and actively; being seen to show interest in what the other person says; demonstrating understanding of other points of view; responding non-judgementally to circumstances and discussions

So remember… Don’t as a coach be too ready to jump to conclusions. When it comes to being ‘rude’, coachees may not be ‘right’ – but they may not be ‘wrong’ either. It’s more a question of gaining the flexibility to match behaviour to particular cultural context. ‘Being rude’ may not always mean ‘being rude’!

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