More Cross-Cultural Communiqués

What do you do when you are trying to get a technical project started, or get feedback on it partway through, or even get it finished, and some of the people with whom you work have this strange inability to just reply to an e-mail or memo ? You need information — simple data, and maybe a higher-up’s preferences — so you can perform the tasks for which you were hired. That’s what you are there for. Why is it so hard to get simple answers? (One feels like Johnny-Five from the movie Short Circuit, “More input!”)

Asperger’s / autistic employees everywhere express this same complaint. Just give me the information so I can do my job. But what if you also have Auditory Processing Disorder as well? The Unruly Asides blogger ran into this recently, where she describes in a recent post how all she needs is some responses from a board member to produce a video. But the other person won’t simply reply with the required information in an e-mail. They want to chat. On the phone, because they don’t even work in the office. Oy!

If you also have APD, you need information given in a manner that doesn’t work against you and make things more difficult. You don’t want to appear foolish, forgetful, rude, or uncaring because you are having problems simultaneously understanding what is being said in words, and how it’s being said in tone, and why it’s being said in interpersonal meanings, as well as being able to remember all those details later on. The problem with auditory processing is not about hearing, but about understanding the conversation in all those other ways.

Because listening to someone over the phone (or even in person) becomes a highly cognitive task to just decode the meaning words, one has much less ability to process all those other parts, the tone and interpersonal pragmatics, as well as the ability to keep the entire conversation in working memory (much less tack it up in short-term memory). All this stuff going on makes it additionally difficult to reflect upon what the other person wants and needs (factually, personally-emotionally, and socially within the business heirarchy), plus being able to recall all the relevant information, and then present it as your part of the conversation.

“Normal” people do all those things unconsciously. They don’t understand the problems created by those multiple levels of cognitive demand, or why someone would have problems talking on the phone if they don’t have a hearing problem. (Then again, “normal” people simply think that hard-of-hearing people should simply be able to understand them if they yell — they don’t realise that clarity is as important as volume.)

I also have APD. And I have also run into this before, especially with co-workers who are “chatty” and “just like to talk things out”. What I finally realised (in my 40’s) is that not everyone else is so object- or objective-oriented. These folks are not like Unruly Asides, myself and others, who view the flow of information or project development from systems-analysis perspectives. These other folks are people-oriented. Neither approach is wrong, but the contrasts in needs and approaches can make for some frustrating interactions.

Here we are, focused on achieving the technical details. These are mostly objective things, aside from some that are mixture of subjective and objective, such as “I think this script font is prettier” versus “Sans-serif bold fonts are easier to read when projected, especially on cluttered backgrounds.” For us, the communication is about getting the Official Permission, the feedback, and the data for a Go-Ahead on the project.

In contrast, people-oriented folks are less concerned about the minute technical details of how the job will be done, than they are about the personal details about how the employee interact swith others, and how the job will affect others. That sounds like a contrast between engineering and social sciences, but it isn’t even that objective; people-oriented folks approach things affectively. They usually need to feel comfortable with an idea before they can assess it in other ways. (In contrast, object-oriented people usually need to understand things before they can feel comfortable with them.)

By “personal details” I don’t mean whether or not you are technically competent, but rather that the other person likes the voice-communication for the warm-fuzzy personal contact, and for the friendly reassurance that their end of the conversation is being “heard”. For them, “heard” is less about auditory input than it is about the interpersonal aspects, that you acknowledge you are listening to them, that you respect them as a person and the official role they fill. They want to “get to know” the person who is doing the work, not in the “let’s review your resume” sense, but in the “oh there’s the nice lady who says hello and compliments my garden every time she walks by” sense.

They want to feel that you have taken their feedback into positive consideration. You don’t have to agree with all of it, or use all of it, just be upbeat and enthused that they are suggesting stuff. Instead of outright explaining why their suggestion won’t work, (which would be taken personally, rather than technically), ask what it is about that suggestion that they like.

For example, someone wants to use an antique Edwardian Script font. Not because they think it’s “better” than the sans-serif Arial bold you had selected, but because they think it looks “classy, elegant, well-bred, and will appeal to the older clients”. (They may not even be able to express Why they like something, but you can offer different positive adjectives and then let them pick, as a way of sussing out their rationale.) So, your reply would be something along the lines of, “Okay, we need a font that has those important classic, cultured lines, and will also work on the background. Let’s try Lucida Calligraphy because it has those same qualities, and will be easy to read.”

It’s partly a matter of “face time” and networking. Despite what some people spend their hours doing, face time and networking need not be filled with social fluff — it simply has to be friendly, enthused (not gushing), relaxed (not overly nervous), and establish some bonds on the personal level through shared interests or experiences outside of work, “Oh, you have a Westie!” (terrier). This makes little bits of historical connection between people. It’s about creating comfort and familiarity between individuals.

You could suggest meeting in person to get their valued responses on the project. (If neither of you has an office there, then reserve the nice meeting room, such as where the Board meets; this will be quieter, and put the other person on familiar turf.) Then look at the list of data you need, and come up with two or three examples of each alternative. Instead of describing why some things won’t work, present the ones that will, and give just a few good reasons why each one would be user-friendly (ease of use), help the client (personal benefit), and improve the company’s social relevance (I hate to use the word “image” because it has so many negative marketing connotations).

This kind of approach circumvents a lot of the heavy-duty cognitive work by having examples prepared ahead of time. Limiting the choices keeps the discussion focused on what information you need, and what will actually work. Meeting in person, asking their opinion, framing the questions and descriptions in positive terms, and also framing the questions and descriptions in a people-oriented manner will work with the other person’s needs.

That may sound laborious, but it’s not just about getting the information for this one piece of work. Having established that positive social bond will make future work easier, and a lot of people-oriented folks will be more inclined to just answer your questions in the future.


  1. 24 March 2008 at 16:30

    “Normal” people also misunderstand one another. One solution for them and for your readers is written clarification. For example:
    “this is to clarify our conversation of earlier this afternoon. I understood you wanted x, y, z. by 3:00 and sent to Joe. But I wasn’t sure whether you wanted ___ or ___, and who else I should provide it to. Thank you … ”
    I teach cross-cultural communications and most of my clients think of my workshops as something that helps them deal with “those people” from someplace far away. But the reality, and the real benefit, is the improvement in communication effectiveness with their family, friends and colleagues. So called “normal” people are often confused and misuderstood–whether they know it or not.
    Jonathan Kroner

  2. unrulyasides said,

    22 March 2008 at 20:24

    very well-written post with a lot of detail. thank you.

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