Wednesday 9 April 2014

Does ‘Yes’ really mean Yes?

Laxmi Chaudhry is co-tutor of ALPSP's new Outsourcing training course. She took part in our London Book Fair panel yesterday and spoke at last year's Outsourcing seminar. Here, she reflects on some of the key cultural issues that influence vendor relationships in a guest post.

Why is yes such a powerful word  when working with International Suppliers?

'In our globalised and outsourced/off shored world we are now working across different cultures and communication styles. This has given rise to a number of cultural challenges, further exacerbated by working remotely across distance and time zones. So what we may take for granted in terms of working style and communication in the UK, for example, can be very different in other cultures, giving rise to misunderstandings, time delays and poor business relationships. This of course impacts the bottom line!
The short but very powerful word “yes” encapsulates and reflects cultural differences and is one of the biggest sources of frustration and loss of trust. How is this so?

In the UK, “yes” generally means that we agree or accept and are committed to performing the necessary actions in achieving a desired result. If we are not able to do so or have difficulty in understanding the instruction, we usually ask further questions to gain clearer understanding or else we may speak up later if we come across difficulty.

However, in many cultures, such as in India and China, the word “yes” encompasses multitude of meanings besides the one we generally understand. Hence the room for giving rise to a host of difficulties when dealing with international suppliers, not least getting projects completed in time, instructions not being followed, not checking for clarification until the deadline date, and at times poorly executed work. Other examples of potential problem are ongoing business relationships suffering, opaque communication, and a culture of blame developing.  

What does ‘Yes’ mean in some cultures?

For example when a supplier in India says “yes” to a request or instruction from you, what it could really mean is any of the following:

  • I am hearing you
  • I hear you but I don’t understand you and won’t admit it
  • I acknowledge I have received your request
  • I recognise your status
  • I am being polite
  • I will do it if nothing else happens that’s more important
  • I will deliver something but...

This list is by no means exhaustive. These differences in connotations and the understanding of the word “yes” arise due to differing underlying cultural values such as the importance of hierarchy, relationships, harmony etc.

However, it is very possible as a company to bridge the cultural and communication gaps and there are many examples of companies doing so thorough proactive cultural awareness training. This applies for both parties being involved and buying into this. One can get to a real understanding of what “yes” means in an outsourcing scenario and achieve effective working and relationships.'

Laxmi Chaudhry is a cross cultural consultant and trainer, specialising in business effectiveness across international cultures, working with global organisations in many sectors including publishing. She has spoken at ALPSP events on Outsourcing and is co-tutor of the Managing Quality from Outsourced Services training course in July 2014. You can contact Laxmi at or

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