Navigate the Cross-cultural Map: Feedback

A frustrated voice was on the other end of the phone line, coming from Lily, an international student from China. “My OPT is going well, but here is one thing I don’t understand. My manager always compliments my work, but never uses it. I don’t think he was satisfied with my work, but why didn’t he tell me?” If you are an international student or an expatriate professional, you may have had a similar experience.

Let’s use the great learning from The Culture Map by Erin Meyer and highlight a few useful tips for international students on how people in different cultures provide feedback to others. People from high-context cultures (read a previous post on high-context versus low-context cultures) such as China, India, Japan and Saudi Arabia communicate indirectly between lines. It is not surprising that they are often accustomed to an oblique approach to providing negative feedback. Often, people use positive comments to “wrap negative ones.”

We know low-context cultures prefer direct and honest communication. However, not all of them follow their straightforward communication style in offering negative feedback. In the US, Canada, UK and Australia, people don’t criticize explicitly. They are in the middle of the scale (shown in the graph below).

It can be quite confusing and unexpected for international students and young professionals who come from high-context cultures to live in the US, Canada, UK and Australia. While they are making every effort to get used to understanding messages at face value and being very explicit in their communication, here is a hidden trap – negative feedback is not provided openly and frankly.

What makes this more challenging is that in many high-context cultures, highly hierarchical relationships demand an entirely opposite communication style for negative feedback. Although implied criticisms (delivered softly, subtly and diplomatically) are considered good-mannered, civilized and cultured, exceptions can be easily found between parents and children, teachers and students as well as managers and subordinates. They are direct, blunt and straight to the point. This precondition creates another layer of complexity since international students and young professionals are often in the subordinate position.

The suggestions I gave to Lily are quite simple. They worked for Lily. We hope they will work for you too.

Downgrade the praise and upgrade the criticism in your interpretation of the feedback received to compliment the unique American feedback providing style. Below are a few examples.


(what you hear)


(how to interpret it)


(what you hear)


(how to interpret it)

“This is great.” “You have made great effort.” “I suggest you consider … “ “ You must do … to improve.”
“This is a very good start.” “There is still a lot of work left.” “Maybe you could …” “I think you should …”
“I like how you approached this.” “There are a couple of things I don’t like.” “Very interesting.” “I don’t get it.”

Ask questions to seek constructive criticism that will help you improve. Here are a few questions you can ask to find out what your professor or manager honestly thinks of your work:

  • “I’d like to work on this a little more, and I wonder what areas I should focus on. Content, writing, design or references?”
  • “What do you suggest I do to make this better?”
  • “Could you tell me one thing you liked about this paper/project/product and one thing that didn’t resonate with you?”
  • “What are some of other perspectives I should consider for the future?”
  • “If you were to make one thing different about this, what would it be?”

My previous post on “navigating the cross-cultural map” compared high and low-context cultures. What I found the most ironic from applying The Culture Map by Erin Meyer to international student success is the top study-abroad destination countries for international students and the top sending countries cannot possibly be any further apart on the spectrum. This possibly being the widest cross-cultural gap demands international students recognize the importance of cross-cultural communication skills and invest time and effort in acquiring them.


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