The Meek May Inherit The Earth But They Won’t Get A Say In Conference Calls

Managing conference calls with participants from different cultures requires skill

A frustrating activity

In a fascinating talk at a PMI conference in Warsaw in 2015, Eva Johnsson mentioned the phenomenon of frustration in international conference calls. Some people just don’t seem to be able to get a word in because of the lack of gaps in the conversation. Even before somebody has finished a sentence, somebody else has started to talk.

I had always assumed that this was just annoying ego-centricity of individuals but it turns out that there are cultural differences associated with specific countries or regions. People from countries such as Italy have a natural tendency to start speaking before the previous speaker has finished, whereas people from countries such as Sweden, Finland and Japan prefer to wait for an inviting silence.

imgFigures: (1) in some countries conversation overlaps; (2) in other countries there are short gaps; (3) the combination results in ‘gap people’ not getting (or taking) a chance to speak

Distinct cultural differences

Silence is not perceived as a problem in Sweden and Finland. During lunch there is not so much small talk. Sometimes this surprises people from other countries, who interpret the silence as if something is wrong. This contrasts strongly with the fast rate of turn-taking and preference for simultaneous speech in New York Jewish conversation.1)

It is interesting to speculate on how these habits have developed. In languages where the verb comes at the end of a sentence, it is more difficult to anticipate where the sentence is going, and therefore more difficult to overlap.

Manage speaking opportunities

Eva suggested that the best way to deal with this difference in a meeting or conference call is to have a chairperson who gives everybody a chance to speak. The chair can go around the table, asking people who have not yet spoken what they think. This is good practice for all conference calls and meetings and it also minimizes the problems due to this intercultural issue.

1) Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation, T. Stiversa et al

Mark Smalley

Mark Smalley

Mark Smalley is a writer, speaker, trainer, consultant and bridge builder at Smalley.IT. Also known as The IT Paradigmologist. He helps people discover where they are and to visualize where they want to be. His main area of interest is the management of IT systems and services. Mark is a contributor to bodies of knowledge such as ASL, BiSL, BRM, COBIT, DevOps, IT4IT, ITIL, VeriSM and XLA. He has spoken at hundreds of events in more than thirty countries.