Bob Sutton spent three days last week at a meeting in Singapore with business and government leaders, and suggested that there are cultural differences in how easily participants openly engaged in critical discussion with other meeting participants:
One of the folks I was working with in Singapore commented that open — even if constructive — conflict is something that Westerners do, but Asians tend not to do (and indeed although I engaged in some open disagreement, especially with a fellow American academic, there was not much other open disagreement in any of the workshops).
But I am talking about in open — if small — public forums. In contrast, I spent a lot of time in one-on- one conversations engaging in quite active debate and (polite) two-way constructive criticism. Indeed, I would say that I engaged in more argument in one-on-one conversations than I would with a typical American business crowd. I would also add that these backstage conversations — for the most part — helped improve the workshops and sharpen my thinking. … The amount and quality of constructive conflict I experienced was similar to what I would expect from a U.S. organization, but the difference is that it all happened backstage.
Sutton’s observations track with those reported in Convene’s “Meet in Asia” series: Such strategies as handing out paper and pencils in meetings with Asian attendees has helped to get discussion flowing during Q & A sessions, Kershing Goh, Singapore Tourism Board’s regional director for the Americas, told Executive Editor Chris Durso.
It also reminded me of a talk I had back in 2008 with Linda Still, CMP, the director of meetings and exhibits for the American Association of Cancer Research, and a veteran of planning meetings in Singapore. Coffee and cookies don’t cut it there during breaks, Still told me. Substantial spreads are laid out for attendees, even at 10:30 a.m., not long after breakfast.
And it makes perfect sense when you consider the elevated position of private conversations during meetings in Singapore. More food = more talk.