June 17, 2015

When Yes Doesn't Mean Yes, I Agree or I Understand

Recently, in a cross cultural training with American colleagues and Indian offshore team members, one of the American colleagues asked, "Why do Indians always nod their head and say yes? When does it really mean yes?" 

One of the Indian participants said, "It means yes 80% of the time." 

To an American this is still pretty vague. 80% - so 20% of the time it means no. So how do we know when it means yes or no? When is the "yes nod" in the 80%?  While not all Indians shake their head, many do. While you as an American may be on the phone with an Indian counterpart, you are not seeing the head movements, but instead hearing, "yes, ok" and also getting equally confused. My insight to this is based on another quick story. 

I am an American married to an Indian. I live in India and sometimes my family members call me. The family members I speak of are Indians, who have never left India. So, I was on the phone with my relative and quietly listening to the other person talking. She was talking  for a good four or five minutes. I was silently waiting my turn to speak. 

In the middle of her sentence, she stopped and seemed frantic, "Are you still there? Why aren't you talking? Do you not understand me?" 
I responded, "Yes, I am here, I am just listening. I don't want to interrupt you.
"But," she pleaded, "say, yes or ok.... just say something..." 
To this, I said, "But, why should I say yes or ok when I am not agreeing to anything!?"  


It was then I realized that when yes or ok is said, it is meant to be understood as "I'm listening to you," and not "I agree" or "I understand." (Though, of course in some cases it does mean that, too.) Maybe Americans working with Indians often hear the Indian counterparts saying 'yes' or 'ok' and mistaking that for understanding, agreeing or commiting, when it may actually only mean, 'I'm listening'. The same can be said for the Indian headshake if meeting in person. Of course, for those who do the headshake, it is typically accompanied by 'yes', 'ok' or 'haa'. 

So how as an American do you know if they are agreeing, understanding or commiting?

If you are having a hard time getting your Indian team members to speak up, do not ask a yes or no question because Indians rarely say no. Instead, ask an open ended question to get them to give you information back about what was said. Be aware though, Indians are really good at repeating what was just said word for word. This doesn't always mean they understand, but that their memory is really good and they are just repeating back what you just said. Again, if you seem to accept this and ask another person on the call what was discussed, it's highly likely the next person will say what was just said. I always make a rule in meetings that each person has to say something different or add or build to what was already said. No repeating of what was already said because that doesn't mean you understood, it just means you can repeat what I just said. Instead of repeating, if it can be summarized or discussed in their own words, that is also more acceptable than just parroting. 

As an American always be wary of the 'yes' or 'ok' always remember it usually means 'I'm listening' and if they are using this to answer to a commitment of some kind it's always better to get more information to see if they can let you know what they understand, agree to or are commiting to in their own words. It may seem a little strange to do this, but it will provide clarity for you. 

Jennifer Kumar provides culture training for Americans and Indians working on global, dispersed teams. Learn about training options by clicking here.

Related Posts: 
What does the Indian Headshake Mean? 
Tips on giving negative feedback (conflict management)  
Polite Ways to Say No 
Mistakes Enthusiastic Indian Team Members Make

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