Navigating Cultural Differences Pt. 3 – Direct vs. Indirect Communication

You’ve probably felt it at your workplace. If you teach, almost certainly in your classroom. And maybe even in your marriage. Person A issues a blunt challenge or makes an unrealistic request–Person B quietly concedes. You are appalled, knowing you wouldn’t have taken it nearly as well yourself.

Person B probably didn’t take it nearly as well as it seemed. Its more likely that they found the exchange very uncomfortable, and, not knowing how to respond in kind, they simply went down the path of least resistance.

The dynamic at play here is the difference between direct and indirect communication. Communication in “cold” Western cultures is typically direct and explicit. In many other “hot” cultures, meaning is more often embedded in the way the message is presented.

Indirect communicators usually have no problem getting the message from direct communicators–however, the message may come across as extreme and confrontational, and the indirect communicator could feel like their honour or ability is being attacked. There is a similarity here to the tension between task and relationship orientations in part two of our Navigating Cultural Differences series.

For their part, very direct communicators are often flying blind in conversations with indirect communicators without even realizing it–missing important signals in tones, gestures, and body language.

The trouble is, when a direct communicator overpowers an indirect communicator, it usually works… the first time. From there, its common for the recipient to respond by putting up their guard against the messenger, limiting opportunities for the direct communicator to have their say in the future. For instance, you can be sure that Person B above would prevent a similar confrontation from happening again any time soon.

Therein lies the challenge for direct communicators with indirect colleagues: taking a crash course in non-verbal communication, then depending on non-verbal communication to help get the message across–resisting the temptation of a short-term win with the use of bluntness or strong language. Indirect communicators have a bit less of a learning curve, but can watch for situations where their listener seems to be missing the point, explaining again in more clear terms.

As a closing thought: you may have noticed a lot of overlap in what we’re discussing here, and aspects of personality–if so, you’re onto something.

One way to think of all this is: while we each have individual preferences, our culture also has a personality. In a way, our culture provides the starting point for our personality, which then shifts one way or another based on our individual wiring. Getting to know the individual personality of each member of a team is where the management fun really begins…