“We have a senior VP who is really abrupt. People are finding her rude and hard to work with. How can we deal with this?”

There are three principal factors that influence communication styles:

  1. Cultural conditioning
  2. Personal conditioning
  3. Emotional state

Let me take each one at a time.


  1. Cultural conditioning

We are all conditioned by society regarding acceptable ways to communicate. How we offer feedback – our timing, the degree of cushioning, our choice of vocabulary – is modeled from a young age and informs how we judge communication style. How people speak to us can ignite powerful emotional reactions which influence how we interpret them.

What is considered acceptable in communication is very much tied to national cultural conditioning. We can imagine a range on a spectrum of 0 to 100, indicating where politeness sits for the majority of people in one culture. To one side, the message is so unexplicit that it is not understood. To the other side, the message is so direct it feels like an aggressive attack. Where we draw these lines is conditioned by our environment.

In the question posed, the senior VP is characterized as ‘abrupt’. This is a judgment based on expectations, largely cultural. Emotions can run high if a communication style is considered to be rude and insensitive. The result is that the intended message can get lost.

  1. Personal conditioning

Canadians are often considered to be ‘so polite’. But many of us were not born here or our parents weren’t. This means we have learned in large part another culture’s evaluation of where politeness sits on the spectrum.

Friends of mine have occasionally mentioned that I am being too direct and – shall I say it – rude. I was raised by English parents – my mother with high class influence from a wealthy area of Britain and my father working class from a poor area. My mother never said anything rude or pushy. (The worst thing she ever said to me was, “I hope you have children just like you!”) My father was always criticizing, raising his voice, calling us names such as ‘blithering idiot’ and ‘bloody moron’. Two very different influences, for sure.

I learned both approaches (without the name calling). I learned to be direct when the situation called for it. In this way, although I can easily speak like a ‘polite Canadian’, I am not generally offended when people are direct with me. 

This is an example of what I call ‘personal conditioning’. My location on the feedback continuum leans further to one side than that of many third or fourth generation Canadians. And this can go in either direction. As I mentioned, I was sometimes interpreted as being a bit rude and sometimes I may have offended some people. On the other hand, some personal (and cultural) conditioning leads us to be much softer and likely less explicit in how we express ourselves, resulting in not being well understood by many people.

  1. Emotional state

Finally, our emotional state influences how we communicate. How this plays out depends on our ‘default’ emotional tendencies. When under stress, some people hide and shut down; others get loud and raise their voices. Where we go depends on both our acceptable cultural style and our learned personal behaviours.

I once worked with a client from a Mediterranean country. His culture taught him to be expressive, to laugh a lot and to speak fairly directly. But he had been in Canada for a long time and was generally aware of what was considered appropriate. Nevertheless, his yearly review mentioned that he raised his voice in the office, made jokes at inappropriate times in meetings and expressed himself too directly. This was the reason I was called in to work with him.

When we met, he eventually shared with me an extremely difficult family issue which was very stressful for him. I also learned that he received different feedback from those who reported to him vs the person he reported to. And, with so much cultural diversity in Toronto, these people all had completely different cultural conditioning. My client had moved into his default emotional conditioning due to his extreme stress and this offended and aggravated some people around him.

What can be done?

The first step is to meet with the employee and discuss the performance review. Explore their perspective. If this is a change in behaviour, explore whether any new situation is influencing them.

Ideally, all employees would learn about the influences mentioned above – cultural conditioning, personal conditioning and the effect of stress on behaviour. Cultural training involves developing a non-judgmental attitude, learning to listen more deeply, and understanding how emotions can trigger default behaviours; it is not a quick process since it involves a shift in consciousness. What is deemed as inappropriate communication is not simply the concern of one employee. Unfortunately, it is often seen this way and training is covered in isolation. As unfair as this is, potential clients can develop an understanding of the influences that are creating their behaviours. It is then partially a choice to adjust where possible and entails humility, discipline and practice. It is a process of self-discovery – not easy but possible.