Feedback Behaviour in a Cross-Cultural Setting

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Have you ever been in a situation where you were to provide feedback for a person from a different country and didn’t know how the recipient would react to your comments? If you wonder whether different cultures affect the behaviour in feedback giving and how to navigate intercultural feedback, then this article deserves your attention.

First of all, what is feedback? Feedback is a practice helping to improve an individual’s performance by identifying her or his successes as well as some probable gaps. In the age of internationalization, students often have to give feedback to their peers from different cultural backgrounds. It is vital that future employees learn the importance of giving and asking for constructive feedback early on in their often global careers.

But how does our cultural background affect this process? Edward Hall, the American anthropologist, introduced the notions of low context and high context communication cultures. In low context communication systems, people favour directness where little meaning is encoded into words. High context communication cultures, on the other hand, use implicit ways of communicating the message, which includes facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures. So, the receiver should read between the lines to decode the message correctly.

A few years ago, two senior lecturers from the universities of applied sciences in Finland and Austria did a case study to see if there are any cultural differences in feedback giving between Finnish and Austrian students. The students provided written feedback evaluating online presentations that were delivered to each other within communication classes in both universities. The main results of the study were that the Finnish students directed their critical feedback towards technical shortcomings only (connection issues and bad sound quality) while the Austrian students gave critical feedback on the activity and presentation performance of their peers. The further distinctive outcome of this research was that Austrian students were in general more inclined to provide critical feedback than their Finnish counterparts. Besides, fewer Finns returned their written feedback than Austrian students. It might be related to the unwillingness of giving feedback, the belief in the value of feedback or to the (lack of) willingness to communicate something to peers.

These outcomes show that Finns remain more general in their feedback and avoid giving personal feedback while the Austrians tend to be more open and critical of the other side. It also demonstrated that Finns belong to a low context culture who switch to high context communication in interpersonal situations. Besides, the feedback behaviour of the Austrian students showed that Austrians are low context communicators with their directness and “brutal honesty”. 

It is important to consider possible differences while giving feedback to a representative of a different culture. By term “culture” I don’t strictly mean nationality, as many of us would think of this term straight away. Culture is a broader term that also denotes a sense of community around a certain topic, shared interests and tasks. 

The study of the Finnish and Austrian students demonstrated that intercultural feedback might also offend the recipient when one culture decodes another culture’s behaviour incorrectly. As an international student, I also faced this misunderstanding. It took me some time to reflect on myself, the influence of my culture on feedback giving, and vice versa. Here are some personal tips I would like to share with those who consider studying in international environment:

  • Broaden your professional network with the representatives of different countries.
  • Know your audience. Choose the tone of your feedback according to the relationship and setting.
  • Consider asking what you expect from feedback in advance (for those who receive feedback). 
  • Be gentle. Respect other person’s time and effort.
  • Remember to highlight positive sides in the feedback.

I hope that these tips might be helpful for you. Remember that cross-cultural feedback is a way to learn something about other cultures, work on your own perception of critique and be thoughtful of others!  

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