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July 15, 2020

Working Across Cultures: Seven Ways a South Asian Programmer Says No

How many times have you heard about offshore software development that was delayed or failed completely because of communication problems or “cultural differences”?

You can avoid or at least minimize these problems with your software outsourcing by improving your listening skills. Let’s look at one aspect of communication with South Asian programmers you may not be aware of – how they say the word “no”.

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. This can seem false to a Western ear. Even if you are culturally aware, it can be difficult to grasp these nuances that culture plays in communication. 

We often have an emotional reaction to cultural differences in behavior and communication because we are conditioned by our own cultural norms. 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.

Changing the subject = NO

Technical managers can be easily distracted by interesting programming questions. 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.

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.. 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?


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.

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 3am 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.

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.

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 offence. 

Cultural alignment and good processes around communication are key attributes Accelerance looks for when assessing our global outsourcing partners.  

For more insights and tips, check out our 2018 Guide to Software Outsourcing in Southeast Asia. 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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