Proactive Communication with Americans

"His American client doesn't think he takes initiative or ownership, but he does all of his work!"  

This is a typical complaint many clients and their managers bring to me to resolve during coaching sessions. Though many behaviors and communication tactics can be used to demonstrate initiative and ownership, I will isolate one commonly seen in the Indian English communication style- the preference of PASSIVE VOICE over ACTIVE VOICE.  

One reason passive voice is favored in India is due directly related to the Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). In this case, MTI refers to the cultural use of local languages that favor automatic use of the passive voice. Using passive voice in India works well most of the time, as it can communicate deference and respect. Often among Americans, the passive voice can express a lack of taking ownership, not getting to the point, and not taking initiative and responsibility. Similarly, the over use of the passive voice doesn't build trust. It is common knowledge in the US that people who over use the passive voice, such as lawyers and politicians, are often thought of as being untrustworthy.

There is a clear communication and cultural gap here.


Yes, in learning how to change from one style to the other, many headaches happen. These are two very different styles of communication and thought.

Here are some examples of passive vs. active voice:

Passive: That task was done yesterday [by me].
Active: I completed that task yesterday.

Passive: All of the bugs will be fixed by tomorrow.
Active: Abey, Maria and Elizabeth will fix the 10 bugs by tomorrow at 5pm EST.


Passive: The computer has not been purchased.
Active: Mary was out yesterday, so the computer hasn't been purchased yet. 

Question: Would you be able to start work on this project?
Passive: Yes, yes. (Classic Indian answer, without any content.)
Partially Active: Yes, we will have an update for you by 5pm.  Is that ok?

Fully Active (same as above): Yes, we will look at the work flow and I will discuss a proposed project timeline with you tomorrow at 5pm EST. Is this suitable? 
Active, but a partial no response: Yes, George, Reny and Simi will be working on this. As Simi is out until next Friday, Reny and George will get back to you tomorrow by 5pm. Can Simi's inputs be added after her return?

While on one hand, the active voice will build trust, with Americans, it should not be over used. When trying to ease the blow of harsh feedback or delicate information, the passive voice can be used. The key is never to over use any communication technique, but have a balance. Feel free to share in the comments times when using active voice or passive voice has helped you to more clearly get your message across to Americans.

Author Jennifer Kumar is a corporate coach, helping Indian executives communicate with more cultural relevance and understanding with Americans. Contact her for more information today.

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