What to say when your boss’s business partners are impolite

Sekretärinnen oder Assistentinnen werden von Geschäftsbesuchern gelegentlich sehr herablassend wie Dienstboten behandelt. Manchmal hat das kulturelle Gründe. Secretary Today – Professionelles Business English für Sekretärinnen und Assistentinnen – verrät Ihnen in der aktuellen Ausgabe, wie Sie sich verhalten sollten.

Last month I told you about an email I received from Secretary Today subscriber Sonja. (Ausgabe verpasst? Damit Ihnen das nicht mehr passiert, schnell hier klicken und diese Überraschung sichern ...) She was upset when a visitor from India marched into her office and said, "Get me a cup of coffee." She asked me how she should have responded.

First, a little theory: India has what is known as an above-average "power distance". Power and wealth are distributed unequally, and it is very difficult to move between different levels of society. Germany has a much lower "power distance", which means that each citizen has equal opportunities. I imagine that the manager from India saw Sonja on a much lower level than he saw himself.

This is what I suggested:

  1. Don’t take it personally. If you become aggressive, you will not only achieve little, but you could also put your boss’s reputation at risk. But do talk to a colleague or to your boss if you feel upset. It will make you feel better.
  2. Get your boss to set an example. Perhaps you could get your boss to set an example by being especially polite when he asks you for anything – including coffee. Or your boss could get the coffee to demonstrate the way things are done here.
  3. Rephrase the order to make it sound polite.  Gently rephrase the other person’s order, turning it into a request. This will give them a hint as to how they should be talking to you. With any luck, they will ask again politely.
  4. Ask them to repeat the request. Ask them to repeat what they have just said. Given the time to think about it, they might use more polite and friendly words.
  5. Write some guidelines for the Indian company. If you work with the company regularly and it feels appropriate, contact their Human Resources Department to set up guidelines for working with other cultures.

Finally, don’t forget that the person who is being so impolite may not be a native speaker. He or she could also be struggling with the nuances of a second or third language. So go easy on them!

I can’t guarantee that these tips will work. But I would urge you to try them out and then to observe what reaction you get. Each culture, and each individual within that culture, is different. It’s up to you to find out what works best in each case.

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