If you are looking for Gregory Gym in Austin and you ask someone on the street how to find that location, if they don’t know, chances are that they will simply say, “Sorry, I don’t know.” And your response to them will be something like, “No problem, thanks anyway.” You will then ask another person who may have the information that you need. In other cultures it doesn’t always work that way. For example, Juan Martín Espinosa , one of the executives in our interviews, provides the following anecdote:
If someone wants to find some address, we go out of our way and we try to resolve the problem, sometimes even when we don't know it ourselves. If a taxi driver comes by, we stop him and say to him: 'Do you know where such and such street is, because this man needs it?' If he doesn't know, this taxi driver will stop another, until one finds the answer and can send the person to the right place. Many times this isn't the right place because nobody really knows exactly where this place is, but all were trying to help. At times it can be frustrating, but that is the way it is. We try to provide help with everything even when we don't really know what to do. But we do try to find a solution to any of the problems.
This has happened to me a number of times. Total strangers have actually stopped taxi drivers on the street to ask them to help me. Of course my American brain is thinking, “If you don’t know where this place is, just say so and then I’ll go ask someone else.” Even worse, sometimes as Americans we even believe in the instructions they give us. Then, obediently we follow their instructions, only to find out that we have walked to nowhere. Our reaction again is something like, “Why did they lie to me? Why don’t they just say, ‘I don’t know’ when they don’t know?”
What we need to understand is that American culture focuses a lot on information. If we have the information, we give it. If we don’t, we say, “Sorry, I don’t know that information.” Many other cultures, however, don’t focus on the information as much as they focus on the person who needs the information. It’s almost as if their brain is saying, “This person has asked me for this information. I should do something to help this person.” Many Brazilians, for example, have told me that they always want to “deixar a porta aberta” – “leave the door open” – because you never know when you might need somebody’s help in the future. If you help them today, you might need their help tomorrow.
The same is true in a business context. Saying “I don’t know” is difficult for those that come from cultures that emphasize relationships. As North Americans, we simply focus more on information and so it’s easier for us to say “I don’t know.” Recognize that what you perceive as misinformation could simply be an attempt to be helpful.
At the UT Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER)  we have developed a series of online materials related to international business, culture, and language. All of the materials are provided open access and without password restriction. Feel free to visit Prof. Kelm’s Homepage  and the CIBER website  for more materials and information.