Some of our European and American clients working with people in Asia have reported confusion about the use of “we.” We have heard clients say, “When I communicate with a team member in, for example, India or China, I often hear, ‘We,’ instead of ‘I.’ I can’t tell if the team member is speaking as an individual or is communicating a consensus from the team.”
The choice to use “We” or “I” can be situational or personal. However, when viewing this language usage through the lens of culture, the selection may also reflect very different values that shape cultural orientations. The frequency (or lack thereof) with which an individual uses “I” can indicate whether an individual’s identity is tied more to a group or more to him or herself. In a group–oriented or “collectivistic” culture, the use of the word “I” is strongly discouraged. But in a society that emphasizes individualism, such as the U.S., it’s acceptable and even encouraged to assert oneself and offer personal opinions. For example, people do not hesitate to begin sentences with “I” in e-mails and, depending on the context, most recipients of such communications will not attribute arrogance or egotism to the writer.
Of course, “I” or forms of “I” can still be heard in discourse and interaction in collectivistic cultures. DL&A associate John Gu, originally from Shanghai and now living in the U.S., exemplifies this with an interesting fact about the Chinese language and culture, which traditionally has been highly group oriented. He explains that, although there are approximately thirty different ways to express the pronoun “I,” most of these serve to minimize the importance of the speaker.
John provides an example of the Chinese use of “We” that he felt could result in confusion. An engineer in Beijing applied for a job with a well-known technology company in the San Francisco Bay Area. This engineer asked John to critique the cover e-mail text he planned to send with his resume. The job applicant knew that he needed to highlight his achievements, and in the cover letter wrote, “A product design that we came up with became our company’s prototype.” After some probing, John discovered that the engineer had been one of several contributors to the product design. He advised the engineer to present himself as “I” and to be very specific about his contribution to the product design. John explained to the engineer that using “we” instead of “I” can confuse Westerners because of two potential divergent interpretations: (1) the job applicant may be trying to take credit for something he didn’t do; or (2) he is too humble to use the word “I.” Neither interpretation would help his prospects for getting a job.
When a culture’s tendency is neither strongly collectivistic nor individualistic, the decision to use “we” or “I” is not dictated so clearly by a cultural framework. Spain is an example of a country that falls between these two poles according to the highly regarded research of Geert Hofstede. DL&A’s Spanish Associates with extensive global business experience, Maria Camblor and José Ruperez suggest that “nosotros” (“we”) and ”yo” (“I”) usage does not result in cross-cultural confusion. José and Maria’s sense of this in the Spanish context, as with other Latin American cultures, is that “nosotros” might be used instead of “yo” to avoid personal responsibility, and can be convenient when there is a need to convey decisions that people do not want to communicate. If a manager says to a direct report, “We are not able to grant you a raise this quarter,” he or she avoids accountability. Yet, that same manager may have no problem taking credit for delivering good news, such as “I’ll be giving you a raise this quarter.” This example, not unique to Spanish culture, resonates as equally plausible in other cultures that tend toward even more individualism than Spain (e.g., U.S., U.K., and Australia).
It’s not always possible to pinpoint where language and culture mirror each other and where they do not. Culture is one of several factors affecting how people use language. Culture, like language, is dynamic and changing. In the case of China, certain sectors are moving slowly in the direction of individualism. John Gu notes that, nevertheless, many Chinese in global workplace contexts continue to feel awkward when they say “I.”
It’s not that one pattern of communication is inherently better than another. It’s just that we cross-cultural trainers want to make sure to lessen the confusion!