Lieven's Blog

What's on my mind...

Do the freedom of speech test

Clipboard with Pencil_16x16When I’m teaching management and negotiation teams about cultural diversity I often get the questions about the “do’s and don’ts” when dealing with people from other cultures. One particular question I get a lot is “Can I say [this or that] to someone from another culture?”. First, I don’t believe in do’s and don’ts when dealing with other cultures and second you can say whatever you want to someone from another culture. When dealing with other cultures (and I deal a lot with Chinese business people) it’s important to keep your freedom. If you start to do what is so called “the right way in the other culture”, you are not authentic and you loose your freedom to act. In this way you loose your advantage especially for example when you want to have impact during a negotiation. The key is to know what the impact is of what you do or say and to judge if you want that particular result. In this way of reasoning, freedom of speech is not only about saying whatever you want. Freedom is always inseparable from responsibility. If you are free to speak or to act then you are responsible for what you do or say. As a result you have to deal with the consequences. If you are not free to speak or to act, for example if you are bound by orders of someone else, your responsibility could be questioned.

To illustrate this, you can do the freedom of speech test. Before you go home at night you think about the three sentences that you know if you say them to your partner, you will sleep on the couch for the rest of the week. Normally this is easy, we know exactly what kind of things really upsets our partner. When you arrive home say these three sentences, and observe the reaction of you partner. When you find your partner to be very upset, you say: “You know in our country there is freedom of speech, so I can say these things to you”. You will see after you call in your FREEDOM OF SPEECH RIGHT... you will still sleep on the couch for the rest of the week. You will have to deal with the consequences. Because with what you said you aroused an emotional reaction that will not be cooled down so easily by a rational argument. If this is an understandable reaction from your partner (and let’s assume he or she is from the same culture as you are), how much more does this logic apply when you deal with someone from another culture? Therefore it’s important when we are dealing with people from another culture (if it’s for business, private or as a politician) to understand the other culture first and then to judge if the effects of your actions will move a difficult situation forward or not. When you negotiate in Asia for example, it’s often more wise to not speak your mind all the time. Instead you observe, listen and gather information indirectly via informal situations to understand why your negotiation is in a deadlock. Based upon that information you try to find out what action is best to obtain a desired result.

For example, people who insult the Islamic belief, like Terry Jones who burned the Koran, and are afterwards surprised about the (terrible) effects of their actions, are not understanding the true meaning of freedom of speech. First he couldn’t predict the consequences of what he did and in this way he endangered himself, his family, his fellow countrymen, NGO employees, and others (in Afghanistan several United Nations employees were killed as a result of angry protesters overrunning the compound of the United Nations because they received the information about the Koran burning). Second he refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

Two of my idols, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, used their freedom of speech right to the fullest and with great results. But they had a clear vision about what they wanted to obtain, they knew what consequences would follow and they were ready to accept the consequences, no matter how extreme. That’s what makes these men so extraordinary and an inspiration for many. (709 words)

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