December, 8, 1999. British Council. A talk with Simon Winetroube.
Subject: Business Meetings
N.: All people that are here today are very much interested in studying what we call business communication. And they all are studying meetings. But the problem is that we have some difficulties with the materials which we can use for the research. And one of the problems they are very much interested in is various cross-cultural problems which arise when people from various language cultures get together and have business meetings. I'm sure you have quite a lot of experience of this sort.
A: Do you think there is any difference between the situations when a) native speakers communicate between themselves, b) natives communicate in English with non-native speakers, c) non-natives from different countries communicate in English?
Simon: I think you're drawing a distinction between a native speaker and non-native speaker. There's clearly one big difference just in how easily and comfortably and quickly you can speak - the language itself. So if the meeting is in all native speakers, I think it also depends whether they're all native speakers from one speech community. If, for example, you've got all native British speakers, I think there's a certain relaxation, you can use a certain kind of humour, certain kinds of exchange of humour, a slight part of exchange where everyone is confident about what they can say, it won't cause offense and the people will have the same sense of humour. So, that can lead the atmosphere to the natural relax. And clearly the speech can be much more fluent, much more colloquial. As soon as you've got somebody who is not British, even if they're another native speaker, you have to start to filter your language and it becomes, I think, a little bit less warm and friendly - not because you don't like an American, but you can't be so confident and relaxed in using the same things like humour. As soon as it's a non-native speaker, then you have to start to filter your language quite carefully and it depends on how experienced you are in dealing with non-native speakers. I spend most of my life speaking to non-native speakers, so it's quite easy for me to sort of trying to use some of the more colloquial language and moderate my speech a little bit, and other people. But then there are the inter-cultural aspects; then, I think, it's nothing to do with native speaker - non-native speaker, it's to do with British particular cultural background.
Anna: Thank you. Well, we have some stereotypes - it's quite natural, and when we were talking about interruptions during a meeting, -we found out that for Russians it's quite natural to interrupt a person without listening to the end of the speech. Is it natural for a British person?
Simon: It's natural to interrupt, but I think mere are ways of interrupting, and as an English person you certainly don't speak over somebody. And if you want to interrupt, you wait for a cue, you find the right opportunity to interrupt, the right kind of pause in the other person's speech, and then you come in. Whereas, I think, the interruption in Russian context, from my experience being here, is a little bit more abrupt, and a little bit more... that you would actually interrupt somebody when they were speaking. But also I think because of that it needs a different way of interrupting because Russians don't give the same opportunities for interruptions. Particularly at first time I found myself sitting, and waiting and waiting for the opportunity when I could come in, and there aren't the same signals - or if there are, I can't read them, when they come from the Russian side, as when is the right tune to interrupt.
Anna: Interruptions can be appropriate and less appropriate during informal and formal meetings. Is it appropriate to interrupt during a formal meeting?
Simon: I think it depends what stage of the meeting you're at and what of interruption is going on. So, I mean, if somebody is making a kind of mini-presentation, if the meeting has started and is now over to "Ms Brown is going to tell us about the sales and figures for the last month", then normally you would let them finish the initial presentation. Or there may be certain appropriate moments of the presentation when there's a pause and it's clear that questions and interruptions are welcome. But you wouldn't kind of to interrupt somebody who was in the middle of making or finishing a presentation. But if there's a kind of free discussion going on, then people, I think, do interrupt each other while they are talking and it's quite acceptable. But, of course, I would think I would be much more careful if I were interrupted by my director, Tony Andrews, than I would if I were interrupted by one of my colleagues from the English Language Teaching Department, So this power of relationships interferes.
M: You mentioned the signs people use for signaling their desire to interrupt. Can you name some of them?
Simon: I think the first sign is very much actually body language. It's a very subconscious thing that most people aren't aware of - I may be aware of it because I'm involved in language and language teaching anyway. But as the other person is talking there are certain kinds of eye contact and sort of little very subtle hand movements which give an indication that I want to say something. And then the interruption itself, I think a typical way to interrupt is initially by saying something like, "Yes, I see what you're saying, but..," or "I quite agree, that's exactly what I think and that reminds me,,," - so, to sort of tag on to whatever they're saying. Or it's some initial agreement, or comment, or support, and then to lead it off in whatever direction it will survive that I want to take the conversation, I think that's the most typical way to interrupt and take over the turns.
A: You certainly have the experience of being a chairperson. What are the functions of the chairperson?
Simon: I think, firstly it's to see that the meeting reaches its objectives within the time available, and that you cover the agenda, and if there are some points that are decided. I think it's important to make sure that everybody gets the opportunity to express their opinion and to give their input.
A: And if a person is too shy to express their opinion how to deal with it?
Simon: Well, if somebody is too shy in business contacts, it's a bit unlikely. Obviously, within a meeting everyone will have a role, and it may be on a particular point of the agenda and this person sitting in the corner has nothing much to contribute. But if somebody should have an opinion, or some information, or something to offer to the context being discussed, if they're a bit quiet and shy and the two loud people are talking away and they aren't saying anything, then it's the chairman's role, I think, to interrupt, and get the floor, and offer it to the quiet person. And, if necessary, to ask direct questions rather than just saying, "Have you got anything to say?" but "Well, Nina, I know that you've got a lot of experience in Business English, and that you have knowledge about this, and perhaps you could tell us what you think about that - so that you're helping them by telling exactly what kind of contribution you're hoping for. That's the main thing to keep moving along the agenda without losing time, so that you do cover everything you want to cover, to make sure everybody contributes, and to make sure there are some concrete decisions made or actions that people are going to take, and that everybody round the table knows and understands what has been agreed, what everyone should be doing.
A: Is there a certain hierarchy between the participants?
Simon: It depends on the meeting. Obviously, often there is some hierarchy. If it's an internal company meeting, everybody has a certain status within the company. But very often the hierarchy will vary depending upon the subject which is being discussed, so different people will have different levels of expertise about a particular problem or a particular aspect for discussing. If I think about the British Council, clearly Tony Andrews, the director of the British Council in Russia is the most senior person if he's holding meetings here. But if we're talking about education, my colleague Elena Minskaya who is the assistant director for education is the person who is the most knowledgeable and the most authoritative in this area. And so, in one sense she is higher than him in hierarchy in this particular discussion. And I think in most companies today or most business situations today, although there's some kind of hierarchy, people's opinions are valued for their worth rather than for the position of the person who states the opinion, so everybody has the opportunity to speak and if their opinion seems to make sense and to be well argued, it's possible for them to disagree with somebody much higher in the hierarchy.
S: What about the opinion of the chairperson: can they have the right to develop their opinion, can they dominate or impose ideas?
Simon: I think in general it's not good for a chairperson to dominate. Again, it depends on the situation. Sometimes the chairperson is in a very powerful position. Sometimes when I'm chairing a meeting in my role with the British Council about some ideas and proposals as to what we should do in language teaching, I'm the one with all the money or with the decision to spend the money or not. And in that case I think it's quite important for me to be quiet, because I don't want to say, "Well, I think, we should do this" and then everyone says, "Well, if we want him to agree to spend the money, we'd all better agree with him". So, as soon as I've said it, it kills the discussion to some extent, So then I prefer to say, because I generally want to know what the opinion of the people in the meeting is, as to the best thing. Even if at the end it may be my job to make the decision, either I agree with them or not. But I have to try to keep my opinion submerged to allow the discussion to develop properly and fairly. I can still contribute things from my perspective. It would be silly for me not to tell them things about the British Council rates and regulations about spending money, their policy, and so let them go off and decide something that clearly we could not support. But I don't want to dominate, I don't want to force anyone. On other occasions the chairperson is just one member of the meeting and they have some extra responsibilities of the kind I've spoken about earlier. But still, they want to contribute, and just because they're a chairperson doesn't mean that they don't have an opinion and they can't contribute the same as anybody else around the table. So, it depends. The role of the chairperson alone doesn't necessarily give you any particular strength or position. It depends what your role is in the meeting, and what the power relationships are, and what you want to achieve.
S: And if the chairperson has to bring a point to the vote, does the chairperson take part in voting?
Simon: Again, if you have a formally set up committee with a voting system then that would usually set up what the chairperson's role is. Sometimes the chairperson has a vote and then, if the vote is split fifty-fifty, the chairperson has another vote, deciding vote. Sometimes the chairperson doesn't vote, but only if it's split fifty-fifty then tie or she may cast a vote to make the final decision. But sometimes a chairperson might be an outsider with no voting power at all, who is deliberately chosen as a kind of neutral non-voting person. That should be made clear from the start.
M: Are there any "golden rules" to make meetings successful?
Simon: Yes, well, I don't think they're golden rules, but I think, firstly, you need to have all the right people there. So, it's no good if somebody who is crucial to the decision is missing, and every time the discussion gets going you say, "Ah, but we need to know what Sergey thinks about this", and Sergey is not there and so the whole meeting will falter. So, you need to make sure that you have everybody there who has important information or an important part to play in the decisions that you're going to make. And you need to have very clear objectives from the start, which not just the chairperson but everybody who comes to the meeting knows - what you're planning to do or what you want to achieve during that meeting. Ideally, you should have all the right information available - briefings, documents, and ideally they should have been circulated before the meeting. And I think you need a time-table, and an agenda, and a good chairperson to keep to that agenda.
N: Do you think it is important who is in the chair - a native or a non-native? For instance, if the tool they are using for communication is English?
Simon: It makes no difference. I think, a good chairperson is a good chairperson.
N: OK, so, the skill will be more important than the language.
Simon: Yes. Clearly, you need a minimum language level otherwise then the lack of language will interfere...
N: So, here effectiveness will depend not on the language but on the skill, knowledge of the subject, knowledge of the people.
N: You've got a large experience of meetings. Can you give a few illustrations from your experience in Hungary or in Russia which are interesting as culturally biased situations - where there are some differences in behaviour, style, skills, or whatever?
Simon: I think that the place I had to learn the most about conducting meetings was Vietnam. I don't know if that was meetings or negotiations in many cases. But there people are much slower to get down to business, and relationships have to be built over a much longer period of time before you can get down to business. And actually in a purer sense the first meeting with a potential business partner in Vietnam you would not discuss at all the subject of business. And the very first time I arrived and I was meeting a gentleman who ran a training center and I was hoping to arrange to run courses there of the English language and professional skills in his training center. And he wanted to meet me, and chat to me, and talk to me about my family, and where I came from, and my history, and so on, and he didn't expect to actually talk at all about his training center or about the courses I wanted to ran, certainly not about the money or anything like that. And of course I was expecting when I went to the meeting to discuss all these things, needing to reach an agreement, to know where I could hold these courses in a few weeks' time. And he came away very frustrated. At a typical meeting, even if it's not the first meeting, you sit and you drink tea. And the teapot is there and little cups of tea, and you pour cups of tea for each other and also the host will pour cups of tea for the visitor, and you talk about the tea, again talk about family, health and lots, lots of things - for at leas twenty minutes or so before you could raise the subject of business. Now, some modern young Vietnamese are moving very much towards me western model of business. So, it's a little bit confusing. Sometimes, once I've been there a while, I would go to a meeting expecting to sit and drink tea and I find myself with some young mobile Vietnamese, very cosmopolitan tight, young person who wanted to get down to business, while I was sitting there drinking tea. But that was quite a change. Here in Russia I find people interrupt the meeting more easily - I'm not talking about interruptions as we were talking earlier. But if I'm having a meeting with a Russian colleague and quite often it's the phone that goes in the middle of our meeting, and they're off answer the phone, then they'll talk on the phone, then they'll come back to our meeting, and then theyll remember they wanted to tell somebody something so that... And I found that very disconcerting when I first arrived here, because the British way of it is that when you're in a meeting with somebody, you're in the meeting, and don't interrupt - usually, unless there's some very urgent problem. So, I think - I don't know if you agree, - that's a difference.
N: Yes, It would be very interesting to know what was the most embarrassing in the way the Russian people speak or behave at meetings when you were fresh, your first impressions?
Simon: I think that was the sort of interruptions was the thing that was most disconcerting for me. I think also Russians are a bit more direct than British would be in interrupting, but also generally in arguing. So, at times early on I thought there was a... I thought, "Oh my Dear, there's a bit of an argument going on here", and it wasn't really an argument in the sense of being anything negative, it was just a normal healthy discussion. But not too much of that, to be honest. I think it was more that tendency of people to start often do other thing during a meeting...
N: That's very interesting. About the turn taking, I have noticed that when Russian people interrupt they usually avoid using specific gambits or specific body language to just signal that they are ready to interrupt. They interrupt directly, they just start talking, paying no attention to whatever the previous speaker feels or thinks, they just talk as if they were talking within themselves. Is your impression different?
Simon: No, I think you're right. Although, either it's changing or there's a cultural sensitivity to me as a foreigner. I don't often find that I'm being talked over in that way, although I have witnessed it and observed it happening when Russians interacted with each other. I don't know if that's because the people I mix with are more culturally sensitive because so many of them are language teachers and so on. Or whether in general Russians are now sensitive to foreigners and do behave inside the different groups differently.
So, I haven't really found it happening to me much, but I agree absolutely when I watch Russians interact.
A: Are there any things that you consider absolutely inappropriate during a meeting?
Simon: I think, the general rules of social interaction are similar in a meeting to anywhere else, so the things that would be "inappropriate " in any social interaction can be absolutely inappropriate in a meeting as well. I suppose, eating - I don't say that any eating or drinking is inappropriate, -but eating noisily in any way. I think, showing attention is something that is different in different cultures. In Hungary I often saw people in meetings, in staff meetings at the University where I worked looking as if they were more or less fallen asleep. And that seemed to be accepted, but in other cases they actually were listening, and if you asked them afterwards, you find out that they have been following, but they were even slumped back in their seats. That would be pretty rude in many cultures, I think, and it would be a terrible sign of lack of interest, and so on. But Hungarians said to me that old-fashioned styled meetings went on for many hours, and it was quite normal for people to sort of shut their eyes, to switch off. But I'm not sure if that would be inappropriate in a meeting.
M: As far as language structures are concerned, would it be appropriate to use long sentences or it would be better to use short utterances?
Simon: I think, expressing your ideas directly as clearly as possible and as precisely as possible... Sometimes you can express things very clearly and precisely by using very long words, technical words, - as long as you're sure that everyone else in the room is familiar with those words. So, I don't think that you should always avoid long words, or technical words, or complex structures if that's the most appropriate way to make your point clearly and quickly. But using overformal language, overflowery language to impress people with your wit or with your ability to construct that wonderful language is generally not a good thing. A meeting is time, so every minute in a meeting is very expensive. It's a matter of people's time and you don't want to waste any of that time.
M: There are different kinds of meetings and die language and the style of conducting them are also different. There are brainstorming meetings, problem-solving meetings...
Simon: I'm not sure if it's different - a brainstorming meeting and a problem-solving meeting, but I'm sure if you analyze it. But I think that the biggest difference is in the relationships between the people who are there: how well they know each other, what is the power difference. So, if I'm having a meeting with two or three of my colleagues who I work with every day, and whom I know very well, and whom I relaxed with, then it's much less formal, the language would be much more colloquial, much closer to everyday language. If I go and I have a meeting with somebody from the Russian Ministry of Education, whom I may not know as well, and here there are perhaps more people and the relationship between us is much more tentative, then the language is much less direct, there's much more formal "Iíll say my bit, then youíll say your bit, there's much less interruptions and much more perhaps compliments to each other. So, I think, it has to do with who's there and what the relationship between them is, as much as what is the natural appropriacy for the meeting.
A: When it comes to teaching business meetings, do you think it's essential to teach students all those phrases and gambits?
S: I think it's very, very useful for people, because if they're non-native speaker and they're going to go and sit in a meeting, and they're going to want to interrupt, or they're going to want to participate. And it's these little phrases or gambits which really do help them to do that, and help them to do that without appearing rude because if they haven't got the language, if they haven't got this kind of phrases, they've got two alternatives: they stay quiet and they don't contribute or they sort of blunder into the conversation and interrupt in a way which may be interpreted as rade or at least not very professional.
N: What kind of communicative qualities should a foreign
Simon: Communicative qualities? Actually, I'm not sure this is what you're looking for... I think in Sankt Petersburg I spoke about intercultural competence, something which people are increasingly aware of, especially in business contacts. So, certainly, intercultural competence is essential. And by intercultural competence I mean a cultural sensitivity and a cultural awareness. Most communication nowadays is taking place between people of many different nationalities, so it's not enough to teach somebody in Russia British culture. Or even British and American culture, because they may need their English to communicate with a German, with a Japanese, etc. And you can't teach them in details about one of these different cultures. OK, if they are in business that deals always with Japan, they will learn more and more and more about Japanese culture. But what you need to give them is the skills to be sensitive to other cultures, to be aware of in what way Russian culture may be different from another culture. Things which they may take for granted as being the right way to do things may be done completely different in another culture. And you can't teach them how it's done differently in all these different cultures. But you can teach them to ask questions, to be sensitive, to try to find out, so that they have this sensitivity.
N: I'm afraid our time is up. Thank you for what you've done for us.