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July 15, 2020

Achieving Cultural Alignment: Seven Ways a South Asian Programmer Says No

South Asian Software Development TeamHow many times have you heard about offshore software development that was delayed or failed completely because of communication problems or “cultural differences”? Organizational culture varies from place to place, but it's not an insurmountable issue. You can avoid or at least minimize these problems with your software outsourcing by improving your listening skills to achieve your goals. Let’s look at one aspect of communication with South Asian programmers you may not be aware of – how they say the word “no."

Know the Business Landscape to Achieve Organizational Goals

In countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, not saying “no” is an important part of politeness and “saving face." A fundamental need to say what other people want to hear during a conversation plays a critical role in any organization. This can seem false to a Western ear - it's not a standard part of our business or company culture. Even if you are culturally aware, it can be difficult to grasp these nuances that culture plays in company values and communication. 

We often have an emotional reaction to cultural differences in behavior and communication because we are conditioned by our own cultural workplace norms. But Western companies don't operate the same way South Asian ones do. Here’s some insight into how to interpret whether a South Asian programmer (manager, team lead, etc.) really means “no”.

No response = NO

When you are busy dominating a conversation about your software development, you may notice the programming team is not saying much in response. Be careful! It’s not awe – they probably disagree with your ridiculous approach or unrealistic release date. They're just too polite to say so. So they say nothing.

Changing the subject = NO

Technical managers can be easily distracted by interesting programming questions, so that may become a tool to avoid having to directly refuse a request or say no. But don’t forget to circle around to get the answers you need to important questions. For example:

  • STEVE: Will the software be finished by Thursday?
  • PROJECT MANAGER: I wanted to ask you about the Foobar module…
  • STEVE: (excited about the new functionality Foobar brings to the software app): Yeah, we are really looking forward to that feature!
  • PROJECT MANAGER: Yes, it is very cool. Will it be made available for all users?
  • STEVE: Oh yes, especially managers. Remember when a manager clicks the Foobar button, the screen displays the monthly Foobar report in the upper right corner…
  • No, the software will not be finished by Thursday. The project manager was trying to distract the technical manager by asking questions he knew would derail the manager's train of thought.

Postponing an answer = NO

When you ask, “Will the software be finished by Thursday?”, listen for responses that sound reasonable but probably mean no, such as “I’ll get back to you on that…” or “I’ll have to ask the team…” If the answer was truly yes, they would tell you directly. The team may be making progress, but not as fast as you're asking for. Rather than say no, they delay the answer. There is some chance “the team” will provide the reassurance to say yes later. But for now, consider the answer is "No, the software will not be finished by Thursday."

Repeating the question = NO

Especially repeating the question multiple times:

  • STEVE: Will the software be finished by Thursday?
  • PROJECT MANAGER: This Thursday?
  • STEVE: Yes, we want the support team to try it out on Friday so you have until the end of the day on Thursday.
  • PROJECT MANAGER: Thursday afternoon?
  • No, the software will not be finished by Thursday.

Turning the question = NO

If the response is another question, such as, “Do you think we can get everything done by Thursday?” or “Is Thursday still a good day for you?”, then plan for a delay. Answering a question with a question is a common deflection tactic. By design, it keeps the conversation going without the project manager having to tell leadership "No."

Hesitation in answering = NO

If the answer is really yes, expect a quick response. A pain-causing “no” may be expressed as a non-committal response. If there is any hesitation, or unusual facial expressions or body language, then it means the actual answer is no.

A conditional yes = NO

I was stranded at Mumbai airport one rainy night when my flight was canceled. I learned another flight was scheduled to leave at 3 am heading in my intended direction (but was probably already full up). I asked the agent anyway. “Can you get me on this flight to Singapore?”

“That would be difficult,” he said.

In New York, my response might have been, “Okay, let’s do it!” But in Mumbai, I recognized his true meaning and knew instantly that the answer was no. I was put up in a Marriott hotel for the night and flew out the next evening.

Avoid Communication Failure with South Asian Programmers

As a general shortcut in communication with your South Asian programming team, remember that the absence of “yes” in a conversation really means “no” – and you should adjust your plans accordingly. Bugs, unclear requirements, and technical challenges in software development are unavoidable no matter what country you are in. The trick is to identify these problems quickly and address them.

South Asian software engineers want to do a good job. It’s just natural for them to want to do a good job politely. It’s up to us to learn how to listen carefully to the way they normally and naturally speak. It's a good strategy, and it's also critical to employee engagement. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to work with one of these excellent programming teams because you’re concerned about cultural differences or worried about unintentionally causing embarrassment or offense. 

Cultural alignment and good processes around communication are key attributes Accelerance looks for when assessing our global outsourcing partners. Before your leaders engage with any of our partners, we try to make sure you're a good cultural fit. Doing so contributes to organizational success for everyone involved.

For more insights and tips, check out our 2024 South and Southeast Asia Region Guide to Software Outsourcing. I also recommend the books by Craig Storti, a consultant, and trainer in intercultural communications, including The Art of Crossing Cultures, Cross-Cultural Dialogues, and Speaking of India: Bridging the Communication Gap when Working with Indians.

Andy Hilliard

As CEO, Andy leads and advocates for the globalization and collaboration of great software teams with companies in search of talent, innovation and a globally-distributed extension of their engineering function and culture. Andy founded the ground-breaking nearshore software development services company, Isthmus Costa...

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