Last week my sister was visiting and got a taste of Grenadian honesty. When my friend Sister MaryAnn met her, she said "Just like Sara- only bigger." Ceilidh and I are twins so we do look a lot alike. Ceilidh is about 10 pounds heavier than me (all the good food in Spain hasn't yet come off) but in Canada no one would ever comment on this.
Welcome to communication in the Caribbean!
Almost a year ago Brent and I went to the Cuso course on Skills in Working in Development held in Ottawa. It was here that we were introduced to the concept of cultural differences around being honest.
The activity was run with guests from the countries in which the various participants would be working in- Ethiopia, Jamaica, Peru... The facilitator asked the question similar to "When some does something wrong people in my culture are honest with each other." Then you physically moved yourself along a spectrum laid out in the room of how true you found that statement to be. Not surprisingly those representing the Asian cultures were near end of the spectrum on" not a true statement". I put myself just a little left of centre to indicated I thought usually this was true, and the Jamaicans were at the wall on the other side for "always true".
But then I looked and saw that Shayna, from Atlanta was standing near the Asian representatives practically hugging the wall. As an American I thought she would be between me and the Jamaicans! Then she explained her answer... and many of us started to move toward her.
She said that in American culture being honest was given lip service to but that people really didn't want your honest opinion, they wanted you to tell them what they wanted to hear. She noted organizations were the worst for this although friends and family ran a close second.
In Grenada you would NEVER need to say "Give me your honest opinion". An honest opinion is always given, even if it hurts or offends someone or everyone. At NEWLO staff sittings I used to be surprised at how seemingly confrontational staff were with each other. Debriefs on events were no holds barred, as people tried to figure out what worked and what didn't. But this amazing thing happens afterwards people just get on with it. They don't stew and send emails or call friends to discuss, they take what they want and leave the rest.
Now in Canada, people almost always need to solicit an opinion because we are taught that opinions are something that should be "kept to ourselves"- even if we think the person is doing something that will make them look foolish. Better they learn from experience than we hurt their feelings. We have all sighed as we see someone do something we probably should intervene in- but it isn't our place or they didn't ask our opinion. But interestingly enough even when people do ask for an opinion they really don't want it.
This happens to me all the time, as an advisor people come to me under the pretext that they want advice but that isn't actually what they are looking for. Here is just one of many examples of what that looks like in real life:
Someone new to my work asked for an opinion on something they had written and were about to staff up. I pointed out logic errors, spelling and grammar errors, offered history and background. Which was immediately met with a snarky phone call about not wanting that kind of feedback. Lesson learned.
Ironically I had the same request here when someone was writing a university paper and they asked for feedback. I struggled with whether to be honest or not. Then I decided to give an honest assessment, corrected grammar, spelling, organizational structure... They were thrilled for the feedback. In fact now I am the go-to person and review the papers of four Grenadians who are attending university. Talk about a difference!
Working in Grenada has made me realize that for the most part North Americans who ask for input fall into a few distinct categories:
1. Validate me: These people really don't want your honest opinion, they want you to validate what they have already done or are about to do. When your friend asks you if you like the dress she picked for a date, she is not looking for you to be honest. She is looking for you to validate her sense of style and colour. Similarly at work when your boss asks about this great initiative s/he is starting and what do you think? They are already past the input stage, they want you to validate their intelligence, business or technical savvy. These people see an opinion contrary to their own as a threat and believe that the person offering it cannot be trusted.
2. Indecisive: Some people search out opinions because they fear making the wrong decision. While this is a noble reason for seeking assistance it also teaches the asker that their internal system for determining what is good/bad, right/wrong is broken and they need someone else to help them. Trust for these folks is hard because although they want the truth, it hurts when it isn't what they wanted to hear and it leads to conflicting feeling about who you can trust.
3. Constant learners: Some people seek out opinions because they realize that having more information, even negative information helps you grow and expand. They are open to changing their mind and ask ahead of committing not after it is done. These people never fault someone for giving an opinion that is contrary, in fact they believe it builds trust.
We have always known that people teach us how to treat them. So when you have people in your life who are constantly seeking an opinion to be validated we learn that lying to them (or shielding the truth) is what they want. Now when I get a request for input from my colleague who wants validation I ignore it or give it a non-committal response. I have watched this person staff up documents riddled with spelling and grammar errors, factual inaccuracies and faulty logic because they taught me that they don't want that kind of help.
For me it has been a little hard getting used to the Caribbean style of honesty. When someone thinks you aren't turned out properly they tell you straight up, it isn't "sandwiched" like we are told to do in North America. It is simply them speaking their truth to the person who it should be said to.
Working here is a bit like deprogramming, for so many years I have had to watch everything I say so I don't offend someone or hurt their feelings. Well to be fair I did work for about 7 years with a boss who sought out honesty and had a very thick skin, but that didn't mean others around operated the same way, so it was a balancing game. However you could be honest with him and he would be brutally honest with you as well.
In North America we have so many filters we use when we are communicating it is hardly surprising to me that most organizations experience massive deficits in trust. This is evident in our use of anonymous surveys, suggestion boxes (real or electronic), Ombudsman's offices, ethics committees/communiques and the list goes on and on in terms of how we subtly (or not so subtly) suggest that telling the truth is not something you do publically or openly. In fact we have spent millions to create systems so that people don't have to tell anyone the truth directly.
In North America people get pissy about being "politically correct" or PC. I would say on almost every course I facilitated someone would raise this issue--I am not allowed to say how I feel or what I think. Now I see how this is damaging our psyche and our ability to be resilient. When you never encounter resistance, when people never say how they really feel we don't allow people to build the capacity to "get over it". And there are a lot of people out there who desperately need to learn this skill!
So do I think you should be able to say outrageously offensive things at work? Probably not. Do I think we need to find ways to have honest conversations at work? Absolutely. We need people who are resilient; who can hear negative/honest information and not retaliate, retreat or regress.
How do we start? By thinking about our own requests for feedback. What are we really looking for? Are you subtly asking people to lie to you so you will feel better about yourself or will you take what comes and not punish the person/relationship for the honesty?
Being honest with yourself is how being honest with others will start.