Feedback through cultural looking glass

We take a deep dive into feedback across cultures and offer you concrete examples of how different nationalities give feedback. As a practical takeaway, we present five steps that will help you give feedback in a multicultural context.

Feedback is a gift. Sometimes, however, this can be difficult to see - even within our own cultural context. But when we venture across cultural frontiers, the metaphorical gift often turns into a slap in the face. This is particularly true when it comes to “critical feedback.”

Taking a closer look at this feedback phenomenon, is giving feedback the same in, let’s say, France, the USA or India? Definitely non, not, and nahi!

Exploring feedback through the cultural looking glass, we can see that our cultural context strongly shapes the way we communicate. While the intention behind the message may be the same, the wrapping changes. And this wrapping has many different colours and textures.

Some cultures believe in the instrumental style when giving feedback - leaving the sender fully responsible for making himself understood. This often leads to the use of upgraders, such as completely, entirely, totally, to ensure that the key message is clear: “This statement is totally unclear,” “You are completely unable to adapt your feedback to different cultural contexts.” Countries that favour the instrumental style are, for example, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. In contrast, other cultures, such as Arabic or Asian countries, follow a more affective style, placing the burden of understanding entirely on the receiver. The sender therefore makes use of downgraders (slightly, a little, minor) to soften the message and leave room for the receiver to read between the lines. 

Another way to understand feedback in different cultures is to use the image of a hamburger. In the hamburger method, the critical feedback or "the patty," is surrounded by two positive statements or "the buns." While some cultures (e.g. USA, Canada or Great Britain) prefer to give their feedback burger this way, other cultures get rid of the carbs and present the meat alone (e.g. the Netherlands, Germany), or choose the vegetarian option (e.g. Japan, China).

This isn’t a problem per se when feedback is given and interpreted through the same cultural lens. The polite, indirect approach to feedback present in many Asian cultures will seem just as clear and direct to another Asian. The trouble starts when we read another person’s feedback using our own cultural frame of reference. Suddenly, a Dutch person can feel like a bull in a China shop if he continues to give his feedback as he would in the Netherlands. And let’s not forget the other side. Their feedback may often seem rude or lead to loss of face, or even feelings of personal attack, which will likely result in decreased motivation.  

Examples from around the world

Given that an example is often worth more than a thousand explanations, let’s take a deep dive into feedback across cultures. Imagine the following situation: a colleague has asked you to review his report and to provide him with your feedback. In your opinion, the management summary is excellent. However, the second chapter containing the analysis lacks structure and body. Of course, culture is multifaceted and more complex than national culture alone. These examples are therefore, to a certain extent, generalisations or exaggerations of tendencies and quirks.

As a Dutch person, you will be very direct, as honesty and transparency are key for you. Therefore, your feedback would sound somewhat like this: “The analysis completely lacks structure and body.”

As a German, you say it as it is, trying to make a connection to a body of expertise or knowledge. Your feedback would be: “What are your findings from the analysis? Which approach did you use? It doesn’t come across due to a lack of structure.”

 As an English person, you will wrap your feedback in a jacket of politeness, topped with a collar of indirectness. Your feedback would therefore be something along the lines of: “I would consider taking a look at the structure of the analysis. But that’s just my opinion.”

As an American, you are trained to focus on the positive. Your real feedback is found more in what is not being said. Hence, you would say something like: “You did a particularly great job with the management summary.”

As a French person, in order to maintain a positive relationship, you tend to look for the rules or the standard the other person has deviated from, instead of addressing the behaviour directly. Your feedback would therefore sound close to: “According to book x, the structure of an analysis should be….”

Finally, as an Asian person, for example a Chinese person, you would want to help the other person keep face and you therefore blur your message or avoid communicating your feedback to the person at all. You might therefore give your feedback to another colleague who you know will pass it on to the person in question, or you might address the issue of structure to the whole team “As a team, we might benefit from learning the best way to structure an analysis report."

So how can we avoid falling into the trap of miscommunication, which might damage the relationship and prevent us from achieving our desired business results?

 Here are five steps to successfully giving (critical) feedback across cultures:

  1. Stop and reflect. Feedback should always be focused on helping the other person. So before we give any kind of feedback it is important to consider whether we are giving it with the right intentions. If we just want to "vomit" our opinion or if we expect an immediate change in behaviour, we should either decide to practice self-discipline or formulate our feedback as a direct request for change.
  2. Discover your own filter and culture. Listen carefully to how those around you give each other feedback and consider how you would like to receive feedback (when do you feel attacked, when does feedback feel valuable). Awareness of your personal cultural wrapping will make it easier to adapt to another cultural context.
  3. Discover the cultural code. Preparation is key. Studying and observing the culture and social interactions of the "host country" will allow you to identify similarities and differences. It helps to have a native mentor that can answer all your questions.
  4. Find common ground. You don’t have to change your style 100%. Sometimes small adjustments are enough to show that you are making an effort. Check with your mentor to see whether you’re on the right track.
  5. Have fun! Did you fall back into old habits? No worries. Laughing at yourself, apologising and explaining your intentions can work wonders and will likely help others to sympathise with you.


Giving feedback across cultures