We were sitting in his office in the U.S. A very special customer of mine. Intelligent, active mind, great sense of humor, but also a serious human being. A German, who had lived in the United States for at least five years up to that point. Some of his direct reports came and went as we talked on a warm summer end-of-week afternoon.
With a smile on his face he said: “I really still cannot understand why every time I come into the office and several people greet me at least one person says ‘Good morning, Dieter. How are you doing?’ Then I stop, say ‘hello’ back, and begin to tell him or her how I’m doing, only to notice after a few seconds that they‘re not the least bit interested in how I am doing. It’s unbelievable!”
I smile back at him and respond: “Dieter, they’re just saying ‘hello’ in another way. It’s not meant literally. Who wants to always use the same greeting?” There aren’t that many options, frankly. Hi. Hello. Good morning. “Besides, depending on the context it could be meant sincerely.” Dieter wanted to know more.
Not just in day-to-day interactions
“What if you and a colleague arrive for a meeting early. Just the two of you are sitting there. She knows that you‘re not doing well. Perhaps you’re overworked, not feeling well health-wise, problems at home, or simply you look down.
If she were to greet you in the meeting room with ‘Hello Dieter. How are you?’ and you are fairly close as colleagues, well then, you would know that she means it sincerely. You then have the option to either respond to her concern by letting her know how you are or you could give a brief answer indicating that you prefer not to, ‘Oh, not so bad, how are you?'”
The context was clear to both Dieter and his colleague that a “How are you?” is meant sincerely: two of you in the room, no one else present, you have a fairly close relationship, you’re not doing so well and folks close to you notice it.
Whereas the context of the morning greeting is equally clear: at the beginning of the day, when everyone is anxious to get started with work, passing each other in the hall or going up the stairs, or it’s someone with whom you have a working relationship but not a particularly close personal one.
“Right, I get that, John” he says. “But, in general how do I know when Americans mean what they say? And I mean in serious business situations, not just in day-to-day interactions.” I continued:
Different degrees of commitment
In the American culture, therefore American business culture, a “yes” can have varying levels of reliability, from 98% to 68, to 38, 18, 8 and even to -8, -18, -38% and so on. These numbers are arbitrary. The message, though, is that it depends.
“Depends on what?” On whether the person making the promise is known for being reliable or not reliable. Some colleagues take on more than they can get done. Others are much more conservative when making commitments.
On whether the substance of the promise – the agreement – is such that you know that he or she is likely or unlikely to deliver. In other words, on the degree of difficulty or complexity of it. And especially it depends on the signals given by that person about whether she or he both wants to deliver and can deliver.
About that last point Dieter wanted to know more. I went on. If the person says “Yes, I can get that done for you”, but also says it was a while ago since he worked on the project, that he was not a member of the core team, that he isn’t sure on which server the data which Dieter requested was stored, and that his boss had just loaded him up with two or three new tasks, and finally that his daughter has an important volleyball game on the weekend.
Then those are obvious signals that he would very much like to help Dieter, but there are factors and circumstances over which he has little control and which might, or most probably will, prevent him from delivering.
Direct, but not definite
In other words, his “yes” is conditional. And depending on the amount and nature of the conditions Dieter needs to judge how reliable that “yes” is. Most likely closer to 38%, or even 18% than to 68%.
Dieter then asked: “Why don‘t Americans just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’? How hard can that be?” My response was that in principle Americans always want to help a friend, neighbor, relative, colleague at work, and definitely their boss, and very definitely a customer. It is considered to be poor form, uncooperative, even selfish to ever respond instinctively with a ‘no’ in the American context. The immediate American response is almost always ‘yes.’ Immediate, but not definitive.
Also, Americans tend towards over-promising. They prefer to say ‘yes’ and then try their best to deliver. The context signals which accompany their ‘yes’ are meant to indicate to the other party their own sense of delivery probability, in the sense of:
“I want to deliver, Dieter. I want to help you. And I’ll do my best. However, be warned, I have a lot going on. And I may not be the best person to ask for this information. Other colleagues were more involved in the project than I was. So, you might want to ask the others on the project, too. Besides, my priority is to deliver for my boss, who just gave me additional tasks. It‘s your choice.”
Things began to click in Dieter’s mind. I could see it in his eyes. Then he asked: “But wait. What if the other person does not offer that context information, those conditions? How can I then judge the degree of delivery probability of the ‘yes’?” A very good question.
I replied, “You need to ask the famous w-questions.” Who, when, where, why. And, how. It goes like this: “Hi Sam. How things going? Hey, did you work on that XYZ Project a few months back? I need some of the data the team produced. How involved in the project were you? Can you get it for me? Do you know where it is stored? Do you even have any time for this? I don’t want to burden you, but it would be very helpful to get that data within a few days. Can you manage that or should I contact another person who was on that project?”
In other words, Dieter needs to qualify the ‘yes’ himself by asking context- or reliability-defining questions. Doing so is seldom a sign of mistrust in the American business culture. Quite the opposite. It gives the other person an opportunity to give reasons why they may not be able to deliver or to deliver reliably. It also obligates them. If their responses are all affirmative, then they are committing themselves to following through on their ‘yes.’
This is not a trick or a way of manipulating another person. It is how Americans get a read on, how they gauge or anticipate the degree of reliability of an agreement. The context is always critical. The situation can change. Americans prefer to commit conditionally rather than to not commit at all.