Intercultural Communication: Indirect vs Direct Styles October 07 2015, 0 Commentsby Erich Toll
Sign up now for our exclusive newsletter. Get monthly intercultural tips, tools and insights.
In the West we say “give it to me straight.” Generally speaking, people in the United States tend to be direct, and North Europeans even more so. If confronted by a North European, it’s okay to be firm about your opinions.
But in other cultures, people believe conflict is dysfunctional and would rather be indirect and diplomatic. In indirect cultures, the emphasis is on social harmony, one of the key differences in values between cultures. Thus, people are often indirect to avoid conflict, embarrassment or hurt feelings.
In some parts of the world, people might give you directions even if they have no idea how to get there. The reason: they don’t want to disappoint you or embarrass themselves by telling you they don’t know.
1. Communication Problems - These roundabout communication styles can cause problems, from getting accurate feedback from employees, to getting a yes or no answer. For example, a South American passenger jet once crashed near New York after the cockpit crew failed to be direct about the severity of their lack of fuel.
2. No to No – In many cultures, the most difficult word is no. In Thailand, there’s no such word. In Japan, there are more than a dozen different ways to give rejection, each appropriate for different occasions. Rather than saying no directly, people might say “maybe” or “not yet.”
3. Does Yes Means Yes? Even yes doesn’t always mean yes. In many cultures, yes might mean “yes I have heard you” rather then “yes I agree with you.”
Direct vs indirect communication is one of the most important facets of cultural diversity in the workplace. Here are 4 tips for communicating effectively across cultures:
4. Asked Different Ways – To get more direct information, you might try gently asking a question several different ways.
5. Third Parties – Another strategy is to seek information through third parties, especially local associates.
6. Change Settings – Finally, try a change of setting. An Asian executive might be more open in an informal setting like a golf course, or a Latin American subordinate more forthcoming behind closed doors.
7. Diplomacy Wins – At the same time, you’ll need to be more diplomatic to avoid seeming pushy or rude. Thus, avoid forcing direct answers.
You’ll also need to give information diplomatically. For example, if you need to criticize an employee, you might make comments aimed at a group rather than an individual.
Conclusion: Let’s summarize the key points of indirect communication:
• In many cultures, people are indirect to avoid conflict, embarrassment or hurt feelings;
• Solutions for getting accurate meaning include rephrasing, changing settings or going through third parties;
• And finally, adjust your style and learn to ask for and give information diplomatically.
For more information, see this intercultural communication video.
What did I miss? Please leave your comments or additional tips below.