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Nadine Thielemann

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Nadine Thielemann

Researcher of the Month

Complaining across cultures

Making mistakes at work, like failing to complete an assigned task to supervisors’ satisfaction, can create conflict. In a recent study, WU Professor Nadine Thielemann and her colleagues at the Department of Foreign Language Business Communication have investigated cultural differences in dealing with internal conflicts and expressing criticism in the workplace in different countries/cultures. Culture- and language-specific differences were particularly apparent in the level of directness used to address a team member’s misstep, the way speakers connect the problem itself with possible solutions, and the significance of the awareness of power structures and hierarchies.


Cultural differences in communication can be a challenge in an increasingly international working environment – especially when they make themselves known in difficult situations like complaints about a team member’s work performance. Nadine Thielemann is the chair of WU’s Department of Foreign Language Business Communication, and in her current study, she is looking at how complaints are communicated in the workplace in France, Austria, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Thielemann explains, “Complaints, for example that an assigned task was not completed on time or information was incorrectly filed, are a form of moral communication and deal with socially unacceptable actions. They often address failures and assign blame. Complaints also often include instructions on how to solve the problem or compensate for the mistake, for example by rectifying the error or performing additional work. The way criticism is expressed in the workplace depends to a great extent on the power relationship between the communication partners, as well as on social distance. The seriousness of the transgression also plays an important role.” The study is based on an online survey conducted with academic staff members at universities in France, Austria, Germany, Poland, and Russia. 

Awareness of power and status in France

The study shows that in all the languages and cultures investigated, complaints communicated to team members by supervisors were generally very solution-oriented. However, differences were observed in the way the proposed solution was presented: In France, failures are addressed directly and blame is assigned before solutions are demanded. In German and Slavic complaints, on the other hand, addressing the transgression directly and assigning blame featured less prominently. In Russian and Polish, the proposed solution was expressed as a call to action, while German speakers tended to take a more analytical approach. Here, supervisors often first asked for additional background information about the situation and also often offered their support in working towards a solution. It is also noticeable that in Germany and France, supervisors had to justify their complaints much less often. Nadine Thielemann says, “The French complaints show a very power- or status-conscious attitude, which allows supervisors to address failures or errors directly and demand compensation without discussion. German supervisors rarely had to justify their criticism either, but they were very constructive and gave team members a relatively large level of autonomy even in critical situations. According to the data, speakers of Slavic languages are similarly solution-oriented, but supervisors tend to demand that the team member implement the solution directly and don’t give them much room for flexibility.”

Germans tend to nag, French subjects prefer to avoid confrontation

When communicating complaints in situations where there is no power imbalance between the communication partners and when the transgression is minor (leaving dirty dishes in the break room, for example), there is also the option of avoiding the risk of confrontation, i.e. not making a complaint at all. Different cultures show different levels of willingness to take the “social risk” involved in complaining. German test subjects were observed to be the most likely to complain, followed closely by the Austrian, Polish, and Russian subjects. In the data on French speakers, on the other hand, slightly more than half opted to avoid conflict and reported that they chose not to lodge a direct complaint.

In the event of minor transgressions, most complaints usually consist only of a proposed solution across all languages; in the Russian data, this is often realized as an inclusive request (“Let’s...”). In the other languages, on the other hand, speakers address colleagues directly as the potential culprits, requesting that they refrain from the objectionable behavior in the future or do something to remedy the situation. “Russian and German subjects also tried to use humor to lessen the social impact of the complaint more often than those speaking other languages,” observed the author of the study. 

Intercultural skills as a key factor in an international work environment

“The results of our study provide valuable insights into culture-specific expectations of role- and situation-appropriate linguistic behavior in the workplace. They also illustrate how language norms can vary in critical situations. Once employees understand that behavioral strategies that may be different from their own are culture- and language-specific conventions, these behaviors may be less of a source of irritation. These employees are then better prepared for working abroad or in a linguistically and culturally diverse workplace,” explains Thielemann.

The study: Thielemann/Göke/Savych: Motzen und Moral. Eine kontrastiv-pragmatische Pilotstudie zur Unzufriedenheitskommunikation am universitären Arbeitsplatz. (under review)

Nadine Thielemann

Nadine Thielemann

Nadine Thielemann is the head of WU’s Institute for Slavic Languages. A linguist, she studied Slavic studies and political science at the Universities of Freiburg, Kazan, and Cracow. Before becoming a full professor at WU in 2015, she taught and worked in research at Ivan Franko National University of Lviv (Ukraine), the University of Potsdam, and the University of Hamburg. At WU, her work has focused mainly on the Russian and Polish languages and on intercultural business communication. She is especially interested in language in use and spoken language in face-to-face communication in casual and institutional contexts. Another important strand of her research deals with discourse analysis, especially political discourse in CEE. Current projects include an investigation of communicative structures in ethnic businesses in Vienna (especially in the Balkan and Russian communities), a study of communication strategies in international/multilingual project communications (especially Ukrainian-Austrian constellations), a cultural comparison of CSR communications, and an analysis of the interwoven economic and political discourse on social media in Poland and Russia under the conditions imposed by increasingly strict media legislation.

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