ATD Blog

Am I Polite Enough for Your Country?

Friday, January 22, 2016

What does politeness mean to you? Have you ever wondered if the other person thinks you’re as polite as you think you are?

These questions may seem too basic for you. However, they become important when dealing with people from other countries.

Mala’s Experience in India

I traveled 10,000 miles from the United States to India to learn an expensive lesson. I was conducting a cross-cultural training in India on a topic close to my heart: working with the United States.

I decided to have the handouts printed in India, taking for granted that it would be a simple task. I landed in Chennai and discovered that the print shop was closed for the holidays and I had no way of reaching anyone who worked there. I vaguely remembered the manager speaking of the holiday season. My sessions were done without handouts. I apologized to my client, explaining that I had asked the manager of the print shop if the handouts would be ready when I arrived and he replied, “Yes, madam.” My client laughed and said, “Mala, he was just being polite.”

So, why did the manager at the print shop not tell me directly that he could not deliver the handouts on that date? Indians consider it impolite to say NO to someone in authority—namely, a client. The NO was implied in earlier conversations when the print manager casually mentioned the holidays. Indians drop hints and couch their “NO” response in indirect speech and if you are from a culture accustomed to direct style, you pay the price for not reading in between the lines. Also, “yes,” in India does not mean agreement, it means: “I hear you, I am listening.

How do you tell an Indian that it is not polite to say Yes when you actually mean No. How do you work with this politeness?


Be specific. Ask clarifying questions. Affirm the responses. So, a better exchange would be; “When will my handouts be ready? I am arriving on November 5th. Can I come on November 6th to pick up the handouts? Do you have a direct reach phone?”

April’s Experience in Denmark

I was once asked to coach an expatriate American manager having difficulty with her Danish team. In fact, the atmosphere she had created between her and the team had gotten to a point where many were resigning. Even while our session was under way, she received a resignation from one of the team members.

She broke down in tears and asked me why it was happening. She could not understand why she was failing in her job in Denmark when she was a success story in the United States. She said that she was polite to her team and made an effort to immerse herself in the culture both professionally and socially.


She described her American work and communication styles, and we compared it with Danish work and communication styles. She found it difficult to accept that her idea of being polite was actually rude to Danes.

For example, she could not believe that asking team members what they had done over the weekend prior at the start of her Monday morning meetings was considered inappropriate and unprofessional. She thought it was a great way to get to know her team and Danish culture. However, had she known and accepted that Danes keep their professional and private lives separate, and that Danes are extremely efficient because of their direct communication style, she would have taken a different approach to her Monday meetings.

Bottom Line

Cross-cultural understanding has to be an integral part of all management training programs. Just because a person achieves success on a domestic level does not automatically mean that the person will succeed on a global level. To be successful in a global environment, it is critical to understand the work styles of a culture.

So ask yourself: What is polite to you? Have you ever done something that you perceived as polite but found that the other person misunderstood your actions? What did you do to salvage the situation?

About the Author

Mala Subramaniam is a leadership and multicultural communications trainer, speaker, and executive coach. She is an expert in designing and delivering cultural awareness training for corporate businesses in North America and India to build productive business relationships in global outsourcing. Mala launched MKTinsite in 2007 to offer leadership and multicultural training courses, which have reached more than 10,000 professionals from both India and the United States. A veteran in competitive market intelligence, strategic business planning, and change management, Mala has held a series of influential executive roles in global marketing for Fortune 500 companies. Most recently, Mala served as a competitive intelligence expert for GE Healthcare IT, a market insights leader for IBM, and an assistant vice president for market intelligence at Dun & Bradstreet. Mala has also held executive roles in the healthcare industry, including strategic market research director for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. Mala holds an MBA in marketing from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Madras. She is also a certified trainer through Achieve Global and a certified Dale Carnegie speaker.

About the Author

April Yacoub received her bachelor of arts degree in communications from the University of California, San Diego. After working in New York and Los Angeles, she moved to Tokyo, where she worked as a cross-cultural consultant for Japanese nationals working with U.S. counterparts and as a relocation consultant for American expats in Japan in the computing, manufacturing, and software industries. After living in Japan for six years, April moved to Denmark to pursue a master of science degree in international relations and development from Aalborg Universitet. She then worked for the European Commission in Brussels handling press communications for EuropeAid. She also volunteered at the U.S. Consulate in Dusseldorf, Germany, and the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark. Having gained professional and personal experience in more than 40 countries, April began facilitating cross-cultural training programs in expatriate transition and international business effectiveness while living in Europe, Israel, and now the United States. She has led programs on European, Asian, and North American cultural differences for a broad range of industries, including the computing, information technology, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and restaurant industries.

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