John LennonYesterday was the 35th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. I was tempted to write this was truly the day the music died but even as I considered it I realized that Lennon’s music no more died on this date in 1980 than Buddy Holly’s music died on February 3, 1959. Both musical giants’ music lives to this day and probably forever; or at least as long as there are fans of rock and roll. So today I celebrate the music of John Lennon, as wide, varied and complicated as the man himself.

One of the things Lennon transcended was cultural boundaries. I thought about this connection when I read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), entitled “Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai and Da; How to negotiate across cultures”, by Erin Meyer. Meyer’s basic thesis is that “managers often discover that perfectly rational deals fall apart when their [business] counterparts make what seem to be unreasonable demands or don’t respect their commitments.” She lays out a five-point solution. While her piece focuses on cross-border negotiations, I found that it also had significant pointers for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner in communicating a compliance program across a multi-national organization.

Meyer begins by suggesting you look for as many cultural bridges as you can find. Such a bridge can help you to understand what your international audience is communicating to you, in both verbal and non-verbal formats, during a wide variety of activities familiar to any compliance professional such as training, investigations or simple meetings where the compliance perspective must be articulated in any business setting. If you fail to have an understanding or even a person who can navigate these signs for you, Meyer’s lists five steps to help you out, they are: (1) Adapt the way you express disagreement; (2) Know when to bottle it up and let it all pour out; (3) Learn how the other culture builds trust; (4) Avoid yes or no questions; and (5) Be careful about putting it in writing.

Adapt the way you express disagreement

Simply because someone disagrees with you, it is not a sign that the discussion is going poorly but that it is an invitation to engage in a lively talk. Meyer suggests the “key is to listen for verbal cues—specifically, what linguistics experts call “upgraders” and “downgraders.” Upgraders are words you might use to strengthen your disagreement, such as “totally,” “completely,” “absolutely.” Downgraders—such as “partially,” “a little bit,” “maybe”—soften the disagreement. Russians, the French, Germans, Israelis, and the Dutch use a lot of upgraders with disagreement. Mexicans, Thai, the Japanese, Peruvians, and Ghanaians use a lot of downgraders.

Try to understand upgraders and downgraders within their own cultural context.”

Know when to bottle it up and let it all pour out

Obviously some cultures have very demonstrative ways of speaking and gesturing. However other cultures are not comfortable with such displays. You need to understand this key difference. Meyer writes, “So the second rule of international negotiations is to recognize what an emotional outpouring (whether yours or theirs) signifies in the culture you are negotiating with, and to adapt your reaction accordingly. Was it a bad sign that the Swedish negotiators sat calmly across the table from you, never entered into open debate, and showed little passion during the discussion? Not at all. But if you encountered the same behavior while negotiating in Israel, it might be a sign that the deal was about to die an early death.”

Learn how the other culture builds trust

Most Americans think that building trust in a business setting is gained by demonstrating your usefulness and competency in providing solid information. However this type approach is not always the most effective across the globe. Meyer writes that there are two different approaches to building trust. They are cognitive and affective.

In the cognitive approach, you gain trust by “the confidence you feel in someone’s accomplishments, skills and reliability.” In short, you know your stuff and for the compliance practitioner there is usually not much higher a compliment. This type of trust is more valued by Americans, Germans, Australians and Brits. Meyer says this is the trust that comes from the head. Conversely, affective trust may be termed to come from the heart. But it is not simply emotive. It derives from “emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship.” It means that you see each other on a personal level. Meyer believes that in the BRIC countries, Southeast Asia, such type of trust is not likely to be achieved until this type of connection can be made.

Meyer ends this section with some solid techniques to build such trust. She notes, “Invest time in meals and drinks (or tea, karaoke, golf, whatever it may be), and don’t talk about the deal during these activities. Let your guard down and show your human side, including your weaknesses. Demonstrate genuine interest in the other party and make a friend. Be patient: In China, for example, this type of bond may take a long time to build. Eventually, you won’t have just a friend; you’ll have a deal.”

Avoid yes or no questions

This is something we Americans have an innate amount of trouble getting our heads around. Most generally when we asks a direct question requiring a direct Yes-or-No answer; we expect that whichever the answer is, it will be adhered to going forward. In many other cultures that may not always be correct. In some cultures, it is rude to tell someone you respect and have trust for ‘No’ directly. So while they may say ‘Yes’, they may really mean ‘No’. Conversely, even when the verbal response is a strong or even multiple ‘No’ answer, it may simply mean that the party needs more time to respond.

Meyer suggests that you try to avoid a simply Yes-or-No response. You can do this by asking a more open question that elicits additional information that will help provide the context for the answer. She also cautions to watch body language and other signals more closely saying, “Even if something is affirmative, something may feel like no: an extra beat of silence, a strong sucking of breath” or a muttering. Be watchful and listen closely.

Be careful about putting it in writing

This last point may be the most difficult for the CCO and compliance practitioner, especially if you accept my mantra to Document, Document, and Document. In many cultures, even the follow up to a conversation with something in writing could well seem like a slap in the face, the lack of trust or even communicating that the listener did not comprehend what you were communicating. So you may need to do some additional amount of explanation around your written compliance documentation. Do not be dogmatic about it, but emphasize the need for written materials in the appropriate situation.

This may also present you with an opportunity during training or in other communications to use something other than plain texts. Consider pictorial examples of real situations. Given the paucity of bribery and corruption across the globe, there are plenty of examples you can draw on from a variety of settings.

Meyer’s concepts drive home that communications in compliance can be largely drawn around trust. Implicit in building trust is that you get out of your home office and travel to your other office locations. While you can build cognitive trust through demonstrating your usefulness to an overseas business unit from your home office in America, you will never build affective trust sitting in the corporate office. Get out and about and meet your employees and build the trust that will allow a successful two-way communication.

Then spend a minute humming your favorite John Lennon song. Your day will be better for it.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at

© Thomas R. Fox, 2015