In many Eastern European countries, if you come to somebody’s house and they offer you a cup of tea, it is considered impolite to accept immediately. You have to decline a couple of times, saying you don’t want to bother the host, then eventually continue declining but with less emphasis, which means that you actually want a cup of tea. For a German who asks one time and expects to receive an honest answer, this might sound strange. An Eastern European who moves to Germany will have to eventually adjust to a more straightforward communication.
One of the most important insights for successful cross-cultural communication is being aware of the level of directness (or indirectness) people use in their messages.
Direct communication is when the speaker communicates true intentions directly in the verbal message. Direct communicators’ messages usually don’t have an underlying meaning. They value direct answers, honesty and frankness.
This communication style is considered more “task-oriented” because criticism is expressed more freely and it is taken less personally.
Direct people are not afraid of conflict and are used to disagree with others openly. For them, honesty is the best policy.
Indirect communication is when true intentions are not verbally expressed but come from context or non-verbal communication. Indirect speakers usually don’t make a direct statement if it may cause tension or conflict. They will find more convoluted ways to reply to avoid saying “no”.
For them being polite and “saving face” – avoid hurting another person’s self-esteem is more important than giving an honest answer.
Since direct conflict must be avoided at any cost, indirect speakers will express disapproval or unease by non-verbal communication, vague questions or even complaining to a third party.
Cultural origins of direct vs indirect communication
Direct communication is usually considered to be characteristic of Western cultures, which tend to be individualistic, egalitarian, and analytical. Indirect communication is typical for Eastern cultures which tend to be collective, and hierarchical.
Direct communication is consistent with the individualistic self-interest. In these cultures, individuals care about performing actions and finding solutions. They tend to propose solutions and value their validity. Proposing and debating alternatives is characteristic of low-context and analytical cultures. People from these cultures analyze multiple alternative solutions by debating their pros and cons from a self-interested, possibly a win-win perspective.
Freely proposing and debating solutions requires an egalitarian society where disagreeing with someone who has more power, won’t affect your position.
Direct communication is also referred to as low-context. This term was first introduced by Edward T. Hall in 1976. It consists of making a direct claim, then justifying it. Both claim and justification are formulated in terms of Aristotelian logic, which is characteristic of Western culture’s analytic mindset.
Indirect communication dislikes direct confrontation or critique. It often involves third parties with the authority to make decisions so that lower-level people do not lose face. Indeed, taking responsibility for resolving problems is the social obligation of a higher-status party in hierarchical cultures.
The indirect confrontation may also rely upon stories, metaphors, or images to cue associative logic intended to provide enough insight such that the other party can craft an appropriate response.
In an academic paper, we find the following example: “A Chinese student told her Western-cultured classmates who were struggling to understand indirect confrontation:
“I would never tell a friend that I didn’t like her dress. Instead, I would tell her I liked her shoes, omitting reference to her dress. She would understand that I didn’t like her dress because I didn’t mention it.”
This dance might be difficult to understand to people used to direct communication, but those who are used to indirect one usually capture these signals very well.
Indirect communication promotes harmony and facesaving, it is characteristic of collective and hierarchical cultures. It is also referred to as high-context communication. High–context cultures are those that communicate in ways that are implicit and rely heavily on context.
The indirect communication is consistent with Confucian reasoning that is dialectical and associative.
Direct and indirect conflict management
As you have probably understood at this point, these differences can create conflicts if people are not aware of their communication style or if they take it for granted.
How can we avoid these kinds of conflicts or solve them?
First of all, by understanding that each communication style has its pros and cons. Some of them are associated with the degree to which the disputants control the outcome of the conflict.
In direct confrontation, such outcomes will probably reflect the parties’ interests rather than the interests of a larger social entity such as the organization, group, family, they are part of.
A successful end to indirect confrontation should be the re-establishment of harmony and social equilibrium.
Understanding these pros and cons makes it clear that each approach has much to learn from the other.
People who prefer a direct communication style:
• If they are offending people by being too blunt, you can help them see how they are being perceived by the other side and suggest a more subtle communication style.
• Encourage them to pick up on the subtleties, like eye-contact or non-verbal communication.
People who prefer an indirect communication style:
• Mirror back their communication style as much as possible. If you feel like you can’t understand what’s going on, be more direct
• Try to have them give more context or background to their communication.
• Allow time to build rapport before getting right to the main topic.
An example of successful communication
In her 2007 book “Negotiating Globally” Jeanne Brett reports the following example:
Worried that the bicycles being manufactured in China to ship to a German buyer might have rattles, the story’s protagonist went to the Chinese factory, asked the plant manager to take two bikes off the line to ride together in the countryside, and commented at the end of the ride that he might have heard a rattle or two (when in his opinion the bikes were definitely rattling), and went back to Hong Kong without saying anything further. A month later the bikes were shipped, the German buyer was pleased with the bikes, and ordered more.
As you can see from this example, being able to efficiently communicate with somebody who prefers indirect communication means saving their face. Had the German businessman directly confronted the plant manager, he would probably obtain the same result – but the relationship would have been compromised.
Indirect conflict resolution may mean that the offense or claim is never acknowledged outright, but it does not mean that the conflict is not perceived.
What is hardest for people from Western cultures to comprehend is that indirect confrontation is typically understood.
If indirect confrontation is not understood and acted upon, escalation is a distinct possibility, just as it is when direct confrontation is ignored. Conflict confronted indirectly may not be explicitly acknowledged, but simply addressed in a manner that is acceptable to the claiming party and that preserves face for both parties, for example asking for a third party interaction.
In the indirect communication style, there may be no discussion of the causes of the conflict, since causal attribution is more of an analytical than a holistic mindset perspective.
Using indirect confrontation to resolve conflict successfully has the aim to preserve harmony and the relationship, more than the individual outcome.
Yet, this approach to conflict resolution may cause a failure to innovate or impossibility to change the status quo. At a more personal level, an indirect resolution of a conflict that does not satisfy the claiming party may result in that party withdrawing from future interaction or avoiding it.
Businesses understood the importance of communication years ago, but everybody should be aware of this powerful instrument to communicate better across cultures.
If you have any questions or observations, feel free to comment below!
If you like this project, subscribe to the Multicultural You newsletter. I hate spam and will send you only one mail per month full of useful intercultural information!