‘This is an invaluable look at the different consideration needing to be made when negotiating across cultures’


Cultural Classification:  Reactive

Reactive or listening cultures rarely initiate action or discussion, preferring first to listen to and establish the other’s position, then react to it and formulate their own.


Reactive cultures listen before they leap. They are the world’s best listeners inasmuch as they concentrate on what the speaker is saying, do not let their minds wander (difficult for Latins) and rarely, if ever, interrupt a speaker while the discourse/speech/presentation is going on. When it is finished, they do not reply immediately. A decent period of silence after the speaker has stopped shows respect for the weight of the remarks, which must be considered unhurriedly and with due deference.

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Even when representatives of a reactive culture begin their reply, they are unlikely to voice any strong opinion immediately. A more probable tactic is to ask further questions on what has been said in order to clarify the speaker’s intent and aspirations. Japanese, particularly, go over each point many times in detail to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Finns, although blunt and direct in the end, shy away from confrontation as long as they can, trying to formulate an approach which suits the other party. Chinese take their time to assemble a variety of strategies which would avoid discord with the initial proposal.

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Reactive cultures are introvert, distrust a surfeit of words, and consequently are adept at non-verbal communication. This is achieved by subtle body language, worlds apart from the excitable gestures of Latins and Africans.

In reactive cultures the preferred mode of communication is monologue – pause– reflection–monologue. If possible, one lets the other side deliver their monologue first. In linear-active or multi-active cultures, the communication mode is a dialogue. One interrupts the other’s ‘monologue’ by frequent comments, even questions, which signify polite interest in what is being said. As soon as the opponent stops speaking, one takes up one’s turn immediately, since the westerner has an extremely weak tolerance of silence.

People belonging to reactive cultures not only tolerate silences well, but regard them as a very meaningful, almost refined, part of discourse. The opinions of the other party are not to be taken lightly, or dismissed with a snappy or flippant retort. Clever, well-formulated arguments require, or rather deserve, lengthy silent consideration. The American, having delivered a sales pitch, leans forward and says, “Well, what do you think?” If you ask reactives what they think, they begin to think. Reactive people think in silence. Another American, asked the same question, might well jump to his feet and exclaim, “I’ll tell you what I think!”, allowing no pause to punctuate the proceedings or interfere with western ‘momentum’. Oriental momentum takes much longer to achieve. One can compare reactions to handling the gears of a car, where multi-active people go immediately into first gear, enabling them to put their foot down to accelerate (the discussion) and to pass quickly through second and third gears as the argument intensifies. Reactive cultures prefer to avoid crashing through the gear box. Too many revs might cause damage to the engine (discussion). The big wheel turns more slowly at first and the foot is put down gently. But when momentum is finally achieved it is likely to be maintained, and, moreover, tends to be in the right direction.

The reactive ‘reply-monologue’ will accordingly be context-centred and will presume a considerable amount of knowledge on the part of the listener (who, after all, probably spoke first). Because the listener is presumed to be knowledgeable, Japanese, Chinese or Finns will often be satisfied with expressing their thoughts in half-utterances, indicating that the listener can fill in the rest. It is a kind of compliment one pays one’s interlocutor.

Reactive cultures not only rely on utterances and semi-statements to further the conversation, but they indulge in other oriental habits which confuse the westerner. They are, for instance, ‘roundabout’, using impersonal verbs (“one is leaving”) or the passive voice (“one of the machines seems to have been tampered with”), either to deflect blame or with the general aim of politeness.

As reactive cultures tend to use names less frequently than westerners, the impersonal, vague nature of the discussion is further accentuated. Lack of eye contact, so typical of the East, does not help the situation. A Finn or a Japanese, embarrassed by another’s stare, seeks eye contact only at the beginning of the discussion or when they wish their opponent to take up their ‘turn’ in the conversation.

Small talk does not come easily to reactive cultures. While Japanese and Chinese trot out well-tried formalisms to indicate courtesy, they tend to regard questions such as “Well, how is it going?” as direct questions and may take the opportunity to voice a complaint. On other occasions their over-long pauses or slow reactions cause westerners to think they are slow- witted or have nothing to say. A high-ranking delegation from the Bank of Finland once said that, for the same reason, they found it hard to get a word in at international meetings. “How can we make an impact?” they asked. Japanese suffer more than any other people in this type of gathering.

Westerners should always bear in mind that the actual content of the response delivered by a person from a reactive culture represents only a small part of the significance surrounding the event. Context-centred utterances inevitably attach more importance not to what is said, but how it is said, who said it and what is behind what is said. Also, what is not said may be the main thrust of the reply.

Self-disparagement is another tactic of reactive cultures. It eliminates the possibility of offending through self-esteem; it may draw the opponent into praising the oriental’s conduct or decisions. The westerner must be aware of presuming that self-disparagement is connected with a weak position.

Finally, reactive cultures excel in subtle, non-verbal communication which compensates for the absence of frequent interjections. Finns, Japanese and Chinese alike are noted for their sighs, almost inaudible groans and agreeable grunts.

To summarise, the programme for reactive cultures is sequential in the following manner:

  • Listen carefully
  • Establish understanding of the other’s intent
  • Allow a period of silence in order to evaluate
  • Query further
  • React in a constructive manner
  • Maintain a certain amount of inscrutability
  • Imitate the other’s strengths or products
  • Improve on them
  • Refine
  • Perfect if possible

Reactive people have large reserves of energy. They are economical in movement and effort and do not waste time reinventing the wheel. Although they always give the impression of having power in reserve, they are seldom aggressive and rarely aspire to leadership.

Why were the colours blue, red and yellow chosen to represent the LMR categories?

 Blue  is a cool colour denoting calm factual planners, discreet but in control.  Red  signifies warmth, emotion, loquacity, perhaps passion. Yellow  indicates soothing harmony, sought by courteous, accommodating listeners.

The World Bank has integrated CultureActive into most behavioural skills training sessions over the last decade and inspired many product developments

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