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  • Writer's pictureShaolin Chiang

Mixed Signals

Once I helped my Dutch friend whose team had trouble decoding an email from their Chinese counterparts. The Dutch managers had worked and negotiated for the past years to increase their shares in a China based joint-venture company since the market size had been rapidly growing in China.

The letter started with "I am sorry to inform you that the agreement fails what our CEO expected, and we know both side work very hard to make it happen. From our perspective and company policy, specific in the chapter 2 clause 1 to 3 the calculation of the license fee... Hope you understand our concern and looking forward for future cooperation."

The Dutch managers were very confused and frustrated about the email; their direct take was that the project had gone sour. An email beginning with “I am sorry to inform you…” was a clear message that it was a regret mail, that the engagement would not take off. Yet, the ending “looking forward to future collaboration” indicated that the engagement would continue. The two messages contradicted each other. My Dutch friend and colleagues had no idea whether the signal was red, yellow, or green.

The Dutch are well-known for their direct, straightforward communication styles. My friend had trouble reading between the lines and grasping the main message. Yet, both sides spoke fluent English.

In international business interactions, it is not enough to know a common language. The same words can be interpreted differently depending on one’s own cultural or socio-linguistic upbringing and context. Understanding and accepting different values and codes of conduct is a critical tool while establishing trust and developing stronger relationships in a global economy. Diverse perspectives also have the added advantage of opening up new opportunities, which can improve the organization's performance. Hence, it is essential to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretations. And the way to do it is two-fold, by trying to understand the other person’s communication style and also helping the other person understand your own.

From my own experience, I have learnt that being a well-prepared intercultural business communicator is a lifelong learning journey. Helping the other party fully understand my thoughts is also part of my job. Living and working in the Netherlands has made me look at my own self objectively. I find that I’m a reserved communicator - someone who is not very direct. One can attribute it to my Eastern Asian roots. It is the same in India. The communication style is far less direct than Western Europeans.

Once I asked my colleague,

"Would you come to office this Tuesday? I hope there will be someone to open the door ". My intention was to ensure that someone would be there to open the door when I arrived. However, when I arrived at the office on Tuesday, nobody was there. I learned, the hard way, that I should have been much more explicit. I should have said,

"I am going to the office this Tuesday at 9:30. Can you confirm that someone will be there to open the door for me since I do not have the office key."

This incident may have been an inconvenient one, but it made me reflect on situations that can have more damaging consequences. Those communicating within the context of global business must learn to express their feelings, needs, and content in a manner that is easily understood by the receiver of the message. Especially, if one is working with the Dutch, the message needs to be stated explicitly using concrete actionables instead of context-heavy abstractions that will completely miss its mark. This is the way potential conflict and blame games can be nipped in the bud.

In order to understand others, observation skills need to be sharpened. While working with the Japanese, I noticed that they don't often use the words ’no’ or ’you’. Also, as far as non-verbals are concerned, they avoid direct eye contact and also tend to keep silent for a while. On the contrary, Dutch businessmen use the words ’no’ and ’you’ more frequently. Direct eye contact is a sign of honesty. Only by observing, understanding and, if required, clarifying these differences can we avoid misunderstandings.

In conclusion, I would like to say that it is crucial to understand each other's cultural and historical background, be familiar with each other's customs and habits, be considerate of each other and demonstrate respect for the others’ perspective. Irrespective of nationality or job profile, we should take the initiative to understand each other's culture so that communication can be more effective.


Background in FMCG marketing and branding, Masters degree in Intercultural Communication from Utrecht University Netherland, Shaolin has worked for international brands across America, Asia, and Europe. Her own company, ‘SHAOLIN Intercultural Expert’, has assisted several cross-culture research projects and conducted training to help several top Netherlands companies overcome intercultural challenges.

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