from Marianna Pascal

useI am Canadian communication skills trainer. My husband is Chinese. Not a western-style Chinese man, but a traditional, conservative Chinese: he keeps his hair cut Hong Kong 1950s style, he likes to eat only at the same 3 restaurants we've been going to since we met, and he refuses to buy a new mop because the string and tape holding the old one together "still can, what!"

Needless to say we come from very different backgrounds.  Over the years, I have discovered many communication principles through the differences in the way we express ourselves, and one of the most important lessons can be illustrated by how my husband and I communicate with our relatives.

Western Communication

Every year, my British mother comes to visit from Canada. On the way from the airport I always ask if she is hungry, and her answer involves three parts: a detailed description of everything she ate on the plane, along with extreme opinions of each (the chicken was absolutely ghastly!), followed by precise indication of how hungry she is at that moment (I'm… peckish. I could eat a bit of cheese or a biscuit), and a prediction of her future hunger level (I expect I'll want a sandwich in about an hour).

Chinese Communication

My husband's family responds to the same question in an entirely different way. At Chinese New Year, we gather at his mother's house in Seremban, Malaysia. When relatives who haven't seen one another for months arrive  from the other side of the country, the same conversation, in Mandarin, is reduced to this (translated here in English):

"Eat yet?"
"Full already."

That's it. Then the conversation is over, the newspapers come out, and they sit around the living room and read.

Flexibility is the key

It's taken me many years to adapt to my husband's family's communication style – and vice versa. Now, when my mother asks my husband how his business is going, he knows not say, "It's okay." He knows that she really wants to reconnect with him – through conversation. And so, he gives her a colourful description of the projects he's working on, who they involve, how he spends his days, and how he feels about it all. When my mother-in-law asks me the same question, she simply wants to confirm that all is well and harmonious. For my mother-in-law, "It's okay," is a great answer.

What lesson can we learn?

The lesson? Hear the question behind the question. Uncover what the questioner is really asking for. Then, accommodate them. Forget about what you think they should know, and instead, give them as much or as little information as they want to hear.

Marianna Pascal is speaking at the Asian Summit for Secretaries and Admin Professionals (ASSAP) on 9 April, and conducting a one-day workshop ‘Speaking with Confidence’ on 10 April. Find out more from