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Get your message across clearly - Communication Part 1

Good Leaders, Good Communicators

Regardless of whether you’re talking about business to your customers, strategy to your employees, or performance to your investors, the best leaders are first-rate communicators. Learning to adapt your communication style when leading across cultures is key to ensure that what you say is exactly what others hear or understand in other parts of the world.

Sell me this Toothbrush

In the opening scene of the film "The Wolf of Wall Street", Leonardo DiCaprio's character challenges a group of people to "sell him this pen". The camera then pans to a number of stressed people fumbling to get a coherent response together. You can see the tension on their face as they try to figure out "Where do I start? What do I focus on first?"

The below ads show a visual answer to that question in the U.S. and Germany. But rather then selling you a pen, they're selling you a toothbrush.

The U.S. ad focuses on concrete results (“a beautiful smile”) and main action steps (“apply toothpaste to toothbrush”).

The German version goes into technical theory (“our product uses the best technology”) and underlying principles (“here is why our product improves your dental health”).

How effective each style is depends on your target audience.

Practice vs Theory – which comes first?

Interculturalists tend to distinguish between:

  • Applications-first persuasion, sometimes referred to as inductive reasoning, starts with what the results are and how to achieve them. It highlights final outcomes, action steps, applied uses and concrete examples. This style tends to be favoured in the U.S., Sweden or the Netherlands example.

  • Principles-first persuasion, sometimes referred to as deductive reasoning, starts with why something works or why not and then explores how it works. Key concerns are underlying principles, parameters, pro’s & con’s, methods & techniques. This style might be favoured in Germany, France or Russia for example.

In the article The Art of Persuasion in a Multi-Cultural World, Erin Meyer (a Professor in Intercultural Management at INSEAD) explains the differences between the two styles and how to communicate with them.

As a leader, tailor your presentation

Presenting to your team in the U.S. or Sweden?

Get straight to the point. Summarise the end results of your strategy, provide practical examples of how it worked elsewhere, and showcase key tools and next steps.

Presenting to your team in France or Russia? Explain why we need a strategy, detail the pro’s and con’s of possible options and additional considerations, invite challenges to your analysis and then conclude with your chosen strategy and concrete action steps.

Is this person happy?

In a study conducted by Takahiko Masuda (a Professor in Cultural Psychology at the University of Alberta, Canada), U.S. and Japanese subjects were asked how happy the central figure was in both images.

In the left image where everyone smiles, both groups saw the central face as happy.

But the right image, where only the central person smiles responses between both groups differed: The majority of Japanese participants gave the smiling figure a lower happiness score than the U.S. American respondents.

In fact, when asked if the emotions in the surrounding background influenced their judgment, 72% of American participants said no, while 72% of Japanese participants said yes.

Please note that this also means that 28% of individuals in each group had a different answer. Culture can strongly influence how we think and affect group tendencies, but each individual person can have their own unique approach.

Still, the study fits squarely in a longstanding body of research into cultural differences in reasoning and persuasion styles. Prof. Masuda concludes that cultures like the U.S. favour specific thinking whilst culture like Japan tends towards holistic thinking.

Big Picture or Narrow Focus?

The article Are you a Holistic or a Specific Thinker (HBR) gives an overview of the two styles and examples of how each style communicates.

  • holistic reasoning, sometimes referred to as interdependent or relative reasoning, see wholes rather than parts. The focus tends to be on the big picture and how the many the pieces slot together simultaneously. This style might be favoured in India, China or Japan.

  • specific reasoning, sometimes referred to as analytic or absolute reasoning, see parts rather than wholes. The focus tends to be on a segmented, separate parts of the problem. Conclusions are drawn independently of the wider social context. This style might be favoured in the U.S., Germany or Russia.

Holistic thinkers (e.g. Japan, China or India) tend to go from macro to micro. For example addresses are written in the order of: province, city, district, street, house number. Family names precede first names.

Specific thinkers (e.g. the USA, Germany or Russia) tend to go from micro to macro. Addresses are written in the opposite order: house number, street, city, district. First names are given before surnames.

The US, German or Russia reasoning style tends to use more specific reasoning and focus on an isolated problem. They differ however in their approach (start with applications first in the U.S. vs principles first in Germany or Russia for that particular topic).

As a leader, tailor how you give objectives

Setting objectives for your team members in the US or Russia? Hold a separate meeting with each person on your team, summarise the team’s objective and outline his or her individual goals.

Setting objectives for your team members in Japan or China? Hold a team meeting and explain the organisation’s strategy and possibly wider trends in the industry or market. Discuss the team’s overall objectives and how they fit in with the aforementioned organisational strategy. Then outline each team member’s goals, linking them back to the overall team objective.


In Communication Part 2 we look at practical examples of how multi-cultural leaders and companies adapt to these different styles with their internal and external stakeholders.


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