Many of our businesses have moved from in-person meetings to online video meetings. Although this is useful, if we aren’t careful, we’ll miscommunicate or become unproductive and disconnected. But if we focus on improving our communication, we can actually increase value, trust, and connection in our business.
The advice below applies to communicating with Western cultures in English, specifically via online video. However, it can also be applied to off-line communication in general.
Be clear and direct to produce fast, efficient results.
Most Western cultures are low-context cultures. This means that they speak clearly and directly. This is different from the Japanese high-context culture, which communicates indirectly, with nuance, and “reading the air.”
So in a meeting, be sure to explain your ideas, questions, and needs as clearly and concisely as possible. It might feel rude, but it will help your counterpart understand what you need or think quickly, and that will create positive results as fast as possible.
If you can help create fast and efficient results, then your counterpart will appreciate, trust, and respect you more and more.
One very important thing to finish the meeting with is a clear decision or action plan.
Make sure to end meetings with a clear understanding and summary of what has been decided and what needs to happen next. Again, clarity is key. Each person can be assigned tasks, responsibilities, and due dates/timelines along with a way to monitor and evaluate progress. If all this is clear to everyone, your meeting will be a success.
Body language matters.
Practice good eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, and smiling when it’s appropriate.
If you only look down at your notes the whole time, the other person may feel like you aren’t listening or as if you are unconfident, disrespectful, or untrustworthy. Eye contact builds trust for Westerners.
So be sure your head and shoulders are clearly visible with good lighting. Nod your head some, be aware of how your face communicates agreement or concern, and be sure to smile occasionally.
Keep in mind that Japanese sometimes smile when they are embarrassed. This usually happens because of making a mistake or dealing with an uncomfortable problem. However, in Western culture, that is a very bad time to smile. Smiling during a problematic situation will make your counterpart feel that you don't take the situation seriously.
Instead of smiling, you should express seriousness, empathy, and concern on your face and in your tone of voice. Find other times to smile, like when you agree with a good idea or when the other person smiles.
Make brief small talk.
Westerners like to focus on the task, but a bit of small talk is still important to create a positive connection.
Generally, you can start a meeting with a smile and by asking them how their work has been going, or asking them if they saw a certain sporting event or news headline in their country/region.
Here are some examples...
Hi Matthew. How’s your family?
Hi Matthew. How are things holding up business-wise these days?
Asking them how they're doing is a great way to show personal and professional concern for them, their family, and their business. It's a chance to demonstrate that you truly care about them.
Then, at the end of the meeting, a tiny bit of small talk would be fine. For example…
Is your day pretty busy?
Do you have many more meetings today?
Finally, you can end with…
Well hey, thank you so much for your making time today. I look forward to seeing you again soon. Until then, let me know if you need anything at all. Take care now.
Ask for clarity when you don’t understand something.
In Japanese culture, it might sometimes be embarrassing to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Or, you may feel that you are inconveniencing the other person. However, asking for clarification will actually save you from miscommunication. Also, they won’t mind you clarifying, and will probably actually appreciate the opportunity to articulate their idea more clearly.
Could you say that last sentence one more time? I didn’t catch it.
Would you mind saying that again in a different way?
Could you summarize the main idea one more time for me so that I know for sure that I understand you?
So it sounds like you’re saying __________________________. Is that correct?
If someone is speaking too quickly for you to understand, ask them politely to slow down. Tell them that you’re sorry your English is not native level and that you really want to understand what they are saying because you value them.
Excuse me, Matthew, but would you mind slowing down a bit? My English is not native level. I think if you slow down a little I will be able to understand better. I really value what you’re saying, so I appreciate it. Sorry to slow the meeting down.
You have already done them the courtesy of holding the meeting in their language, so the least they can do is happily adjust their speaking speed to make the meeting efficient!
Asking “why” or "how" questions is also valuable if you don’t know why they have a certain idea or how they expect to accomplish a task. This will allow them to explain their reasoning, which will help you understand their perspective and needs more clearly. Then, if you disagree, you can ask about whether or not there are other possibilities.
Remember that questioning doesn’t make you look stupid or negative. Instead, it demonstrates that you are engaged, thinking critically, and care to understand their message. You can read my other blog article about how to disagree politely here.
Another great question to ask is about how you can be more accommodating and helpful to your counterpart. This shows a desire to receive feedback and be a team player. For example...
Is there anything that I can adjust on my end to help you and help our partnership continue to go smoothly?
Is there anything from our team that you find frustrating or confusing? I recognize we come from different cultures, so I want to eliminate any confusion or frustration due to our differences.
Be clear and direct in order to produce fast, efficient results.
Use body language to build even more trust and connection.
Make brief small talk to show concern, but don't waste too much time.
Ask questions for clarification and to understand how you can accommodate your counterpart.
If you implement these communication methods into your future meetings, you will increase trust, connection, and results. I truly believe that the more thoughtfully we communicate, the more we can make the world a better place.
Other blog articles you might like...
Learn how to make polite requests in English. (There's more nuance than you might think!)
Discover how to improve your English from home through using shadowing exercises.
Want to connect with the changing world in English?
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