It’s the stuff of nightmares. You get to the Q&A section of your meeting or presentation. You ask, “Who’d like to start us off with the first question?”
Ear shattering, blaring silence.
You smile nervously. “Come on! Don’t be shy. I’m sure everyone’s got lots of things they’d like to ask.” People start to shuffle awkwardly in their seats.
Grinning inanely, you try to make eye contact. They look away. You wish the earth would open up and swallow you. You crack a joke. “Don’t all speak at once!” You laugh, alone.
Having either cut the session short, or filled it with answers to your own questions, you vow to never seek audience participation in China, Japan or Korea again.
This scenario illustrates one of the most glaring differences in work culture between North East Asia and ‘The West’. It’s most apparent if you are used to the US, where people vie for the chance to talk first. People in NE Asia also want to voice their opinions, contrary to common misconceptions. They too are curious and want their questions answered. They are not too shy to talk in large groups. They are just not in so much of a hurry to do so, and don’t feel it necessary to compete with each other to have the first word. They are very comfortable with silence.
The key to managing this situation in a way that benefits everyone is patience and confidence.
Announce your Q&A segment to the audience as a whole, “Next I’d like you to ask any questions you might have, or to share your perspective on the topic.”
Do not make eye contact with anyone or use any gestures to hurry things along.
Keep smiling. The silence is normal. Everyone is comfortable. People are planning their questions or comments in their heads. Don’t interrupt them.
Wait until you can bear the silence no more. Count one beat. The first question or comment will come.