Whenever I tell the ladies in the British Club: “I would write it like this…” or “I would just say…”, they give me the look. The look is both wary and resigned, the unspoken message being: “Your way of communicating is too direct, we don’t do things that way.” (Of course they wouldn’t actually say it to me, but I’ve learned to read the look 😉 ). The direct way is considered rude in Britain, even though some British people told me that sometimes the situation created by not talking openly can be rather burdensome. (Of course I then ask: “Why don’t you just talk about it then?” and get the look again.)
Communication is always tricky and it can become a challenge when different communication styles meet. Due to being German and having many British friends, I often notice the implications of direct and indirect communication. That said, there is no direct or indirect style per se. It is – like almost everything in culture – different degrees of directness. If I, as a German, consider someone’s communication indirect, a Chinese person might consider that person’s communication very blunt. I met many people in trainings who tell me that they are very direct communicators, but when I give them examples of German communication, they tend to look shocked. My British friends would be surprised to hear than my German friends consider me too indirect sometimes.
Direct communication means saying it like it is, with no frills (“Your presentation is not good.”), putting your whole message into the actual words, putting content before style and saying directly if there is something you don’t approve of. Direct communicators don’t tend to use many pleasantries or do much small talk, they use communication to get a message across.
Indirect communication means that messages are wrapped up nicely so as not to hurt the recipient (“Your presentation is quite good. It might be even better if…”), often only part of the message is in the actual words (more on that later), style is before content and some things are better left unsaid. Communication is also used to nurture or protect relationships, so compliments or small talk are used to show friendliness.
Like most people moving in international surroundings, I met both the challenges of communication with people who are more direct than me and those (the majority) who are less direct than me. What are the challenges?
- How rude!
I mentioned that some of my training participants are shocked about German communication (Germans are the most direct communicators in the whole word – it’s a pity there’s no World Cup for that, then we could add it to our four football World Cups 😉 ). People who are accustomed to a more gentle approach especially with negative feedback, will consider a direct approach rude and hurtful. Nobody likes bad feedback and when communication is also used for relationship nurturing it’s only natural to voice such bad feedback in the kindest possible way.
I remember a 2-day-training with a Brazilian participant (Brazil being a far more indirect culture than Germany); communication was a big topic of course. He had already worked in Germany for a few weeks and had made several experiences with our way to communicate. It was helpful for him to learn that the intention of direct communication is not to be rude or to hurt anyone, but to get the message across swiftly and efficiently. Still, on Day 2 of the training he called out “Oh, you Germans and your efficiency! Where is the heart?” – During another training, with a German going to the US, I explained about the American sandwich approach and the German called out “So much unnecessary babble, what a waste of time!”
It is sometimes difficult to accept the different meaning of communication. I told the Brazilian participant that part of Germany’s success story is to be efficient, get down to business, get things done, don’t lose time. If you pinpoint a mistake quickly, you can quickly start to correct the mistake. Another important aspect here is that this direct style is not considered hurtful. If it’s a criticism based on facts and presented rationally, who should anybody be hurt by it? It’s the truth after all. This is mainly the business context, though. Communication on a private level is not quite as direct, and that makes sense – communication in a friendship is also relationship nurturing. Still, there is also the underlying belief that a factual disagreement has no effect on the underlying relationship.
The Brazilian (as well as participants in other trainings) understood this, but he didn’t like it. What’s so bad about dedicating a few seconds to add some nice words? Nothing at all, but there you are with different cultures – it’s not that one approach is better of worse, but that one approach just works better in one culture or is preferred there.
- How dishonest!
In direct cultures, saying things as they are is considered a good thing and “He doesn’t beat about the bush” is a compliment. Not saying it like it is can be considered a lie. This is where it gets tricky. “But we say it like it is, just in a nice way!” the indirect communicators cry out and they are right. The challenge here is that indirect communication requires a certain reading between the lines and there is no translation handbook for this (though “What the British say and what they mean” on the internet is a good start), so it is very well possible that the recipient gets a different message, part of the message or even no message at all. Remember when I said with indirect communication most of the message is not in the words? Words can be misunderstood, but nonverbal communication is open to a myriad of interpretation – and it gets more difficult if you both come from different cultural backgrounds and have different nonverbal cues. The nonverbal bit is nearly impossible with a message recipient who is used to getting the whole message in the words.
So when some people hear “This is a good start, I just have a few suggestions”, they’ll walk away happily because they understand it to be a praise. Others will walk away, scrap the work and start anew. Imagine an employee understanding these indirect criticisms as praise and then, after six months, receiving a bad performance evaluation. The employee will say “Well, why didn’t you tell me before? You could have be honest!”
Same with vague replies or false excuses. A Brazilian co-trainer I once worked with told me that in Brazil, if something doesn’t go according to plan or you find out you can’t get something done by the deadline, you don’t tell the other person. Bad news are not willingly shared. Questions about the status are avoided or answered extremely vaguely (or maybe with a tiny indirect hint hidden somewhere in the “All going great” message). She also told me that she knows of an instance where this brought on a catastrophe with a German company, who never got the underlying message of “No, it’s not going great” until it was too late and then considered themselves lied to. I heard similar stories from other indirect countries as well.
So, what is considered polite in one culture, could be seen as a lie in another.
- Message? What message?
Someone from a direct culture is not used to reading between the lines (or not to the extent of a more indirect culture), so as I said before, they might not get a message at all.
“Oh, the coffee is empty” or “There’s no paper in the printer” would be understood as mere information by some, like “The sun is shining”, not as a request / order to refill the coffee or paper. Imagine this simple every-day situation with a coworker. Colleague A notices that Colleague B always forgets to refill the paper when it’s his turn.A – obviously from an indirect culture – always reacts with “Oh, look, no paper!” B is from a direct culture and hears the words but doesn’t realize that this is not the message conveyed (after all, if you tell me that it’s raining outside, you don’t expect me to do something against it either). After six months, A explodes and accuses B of being lazy and uncooperative. B has no idea what’s going on, is surprised at A’s sudden anger and then says “Well, why didn’t you just remind me to refill the paper?” – “I did remind you! Over and over!”
- Oh no, am I missing something?
I freely admit that this is something I experience with my British friends. I’m aware that the British communicate less directly than the Germans, so I sometimes tend to overanalyse something they say to me because I’m worried I might be missing the actual message. This is a common problem when your own culture doesn’t require reading between the lines – you don’t know when it is required in other cultures and how you can notice the signs of an underlying message.
- Can’t we just talk about it?
For me, a good friendship means that we can discuss misunderstandings or something that the friend said/did which I didn’t like. Basically, in most relationships (work, clubs, family etc) a good talk can clear the air, take care of the problem and improve the relationship (or end the relationship, but also the tension). Things that are not said simmer in the background and create tension. However, in many other cultures (remember my Be Nice entry?) it is preferred to leave some things unsaid. As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, this is something I noticed with British friends. Even when tensions were strong, my (exasperated, I admit it) question “Why don’t we just discuss it with the other person?” was answered with a simple “No, that would be rude.”
I also asked a good British friend of mine to explain this reluctance to bring things into the open. She told me that it is seen as a sign of good breeding, of good manners to not blurt out your feelings and/or anger with a situation or a person. It is seen as more lower-class behaviour to do that – though she also said that it is changing and that younger people are more open than previous generations. I asked her how this is handled in friendships and of course it depends on the closeness of the friendship and on the issue (just like in Germany), but in general the tendency to just let things go, to not make a fuss, to not mention something is much stronger than in Germany. One either lives with it or one has ways of ending the friendship in a more indirect way.
As you can see, there are many potential pitfalls, but the good news is that it’s often a matter of practice and of course also of knowing about the communication style of the other person. Some bits of advice when communicating with someone from a different culture
- find out what the preferred communication style in the that culture is in comparison to your own style
- realize that gentle, polite, harsh, rude, direct or indirect could have a different meaning in another culture – it’s all relative
If it is more direct than your style
- don’t feel offended by messages that sound harsh to you
- don’t automatically assume someone doesn’t like you if communication takes place without pleasantries
- if you have the feeling you are not being heard, try to put your whole message into words – into “clear” (watch and learn from your surroundings) words
- don’t try to soften bad news up or be vague about them
- don’t expect people to know your feelings if you don’t express them (a popular German saying is “One can only help a speaking person.”)
- remember that communication is mainly for conveying information
If it is less direct than your style
- practice reading between the lines, become aware that there might be more to a message than you think
- don’t be shy to ask for clarification and if necessary (remember the unwillingness to share bad news) get a “cultural interpreter” so you don’t miss crucial messages
- ensure to word negative feedback in a “gentle” (watch and learn from your surroundings) way
- use “polite” (again: watch and learn) wordings for requests
- learn which things are better left unsaid
- remember that communication is also for relationship-nurturing