As children, we are taught to tell the truth. As adults, we learn not to. Specifically, as we grow up, it becomes more and more evident that the price of being frank is often frankly high: losing friends, getting people angry and even social isolation. In other words, most people either do not want to hear or are not ready for criticism and bad news.
Culture plays a major part in establishing acceptable behavior. Many societies highly value social cohesion, including Japan, main stream America and Britain and Arab countries. By contrast, “hotter” countries accept temporary unpleasantness, leading people to develop thick skin. The best examples are the Mediterranean and Latin American countries. There, people are allowed to yell and scream without serious social consequences. You get used to “rude” people or leave for more civil (civilized to some) places. Of course, the adjectives used by such locals are hot and genuine as compared to the cold and fake of more gentile countries. As the French say, chacun à son gout (to each his own). The challenge occurs when cultures meet.
I was at a conference when a woman from an Eastern European country gave a 25 minute presentation while sitting down behind a desk and reading into her paper. I don’t understand how the largely non-native speaker crowd understood anything as I found it difficult to catch any words. Not only that, it reminded me of the Yves Montand song, le telegramme (http://www.jukebox.fr/yves-montand/clip,le-telegramme,qvqu0p.html), in which an operator completes ruins the most romantic telegram by rendering it monotone. The method ruined the message. After some 10 minutes of suffering, I got up and left the room.
The problem arose at the next break when that same lecturer approached me and asked me why I had left early. I faced a cultural schizophrenic dilemma: my American side told me to mumble something about having to go the bathroom or the like while my Israeli psyche took the question literally. The latter prevailed. I told her the truth, trying to soften my words. However, she was not stupid and understood exactly what I meant. The end result was her getting quite upset and me becoming quite confused.
My issue was and is the best way to handle that situation in the future. Should I, as a colleague, defuse the tension by avoiding the issue or take the question at face value, i.e., if you want a critique, you will get one? For comparisons sakes, I had a similar situation a few hours previously but the person agreed with my criticism and thanked me. I tend to think that I will take the latter route as I live in a Mediterranean country where confrontation is a norm. Still, I recognize that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor. Alas if knew which part.