Indirect Communication: A Different Language

For the first half of my life, I believed something as firmly as I believed that the sky was blue: Effective communication was clear, concise, and straightforward. As an American student, this was drilled into me through the mind-numbing but orderly logic of the 5-paragraph essay. (First, you tell the reader what you are going to say, then you say it, and then you tell them that you just told them). As adults, we don’t take the format so literally (not every paragraph has to have one main idea and three supporting details), but the underlying assumptions remain mostly intact. It just makes sense! We should say what we mean, mean what we say, and not take up too much time while saying it.

These assumptions were so ingrained that when I first encountered people from other countries who communicated indirectly, I assumed that they lacked communication skills, confidence, and critical thinking. Ironically, while judging them so harshly, I missed the hidden meanings encoded in their communication. Because I was only scanning the words that were spoken, and was not paying attention to the context in which they were said, or the way in which they were said, it was as if I was only seeing one color out of the full rainbow spectrum. Although I thought they could not communicate properly, it was actually me who was deficient – at least in those cultural settings. I only knew my way, and while there was a certain comfort in believing my way was right in theory, in practice it was actually quite limiting and had consequences, both professionally and socially.

Although not all people in a country communicate in precisely the same way, many Americans share my cultural expectation that good communication is direct. However, when these same Americans (or people from other direct cultures, like Germany) go to less-direct, or even indirect cultures, they confront a steep learning curve. When this happens, what can they do? The first step is to recognize and accept the difference. The next is to embrace it, and learn to adapt.

Andy Molinsky and I tackled this topic in a recent article for Harvard Business Review, and proposed that indirect communication is a skill. While it may be intimidating or opaque at first, it can be developed through practice, patience, and persistence. So don’t give up or give into judgment. Just keep trying, and eventually, if you are sincere in your effort, you will be rewarded with a versatile communication repertoire.

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