The complexity of language and communication in international business environments runs deeper than one might assume. Communication with Americans or someone of a different culture comes with unique challenges.
One of the biggest difficulties when working in an international environment is the enormous potential for misunderstanding and confusion caused by communication issues. However, when each individual involved makes an intentional effort to understand and be understood, the narrative can change.
Regardless of how much or how little international experience you have had in your career thus far, communication seems to be a recurring challenge in even domestic settings. This article should shed light on those communication challenges and propose practical solutions that you can immediately implement.
Although the more overt global communication challenges arise from language barriers, there are other more nuanced factors that contribute to intercultural miscommunication as well. Many of those factors are linked to the fact that different cultures use language differently. What one culture feels to be a very positive communication style can often be considered a very poor communication style in another culture.
An understanding of these different approaches to communication can prove invaluable when trying to build relationships across the cultures. All too often, approaches to communication which differ from the norm in your own culture can be misinterpreted as a personality shortcoming. Instead of people thinking, “that’s the way they use language in that particular country,” people associate language style with negative characteristics such as rudeness.
The proof of the fact that culture impacts significantly on language style and usage is that, despite the fact that the UK and the United States have a common language, communication difficulties still frequently arise between business people from the States and the UK. They have a common language but very different views on how that language should be applied.
Culture is often measured by various dimensions or variables. A few of these dimensions include: hierarchy vs. equality, individualistic vs. collectivistic, and flexible vs. order. This blog will focus on the cultural dimension of direct vs. indirect communication styles.
Although there will always be variability and exceptions, national cultures tend lean more as either direct communicators or indirect communicators.
Direct communicators are characterized by overt and explicit handling of conflict. Whereas indirect communicators are characterized by the use of implicit modes of communication when addressing conflict.
To understand the the difference between direct and indirect communication styles, please see the brief case study below:
“The VP of sales politely asked her subordinate if it would be possible for him to speed up the completion of an important proposal for a client by three weeks. Her subordinate knew he had a very full schedule and it would be difficult, but said, “I’ll try.” He then put the request on the back burner until the VP contacted him three weeks later and asked for the proposal. The subordinate apologized and didn’t understand why the VP wouldn’t have contacted him again if the proposal was so urgent.”
In this case, the VP of sales is a direct communicator and her subordinate is an indirect communicator. The directness of the VP is demonstrated through her overt request to speed up the completion of a task. The indirectness of the subordinate is seen through his response, “I’ll try.” This is a common response in indirect cultures– the actual meaning is “it won’t happen.” However, it is common for direct communicators to interpret this without reading between the lines.
This case study was adapted from a similar experience that our client shared with us. The VP of Sales was American and her subordinate was Indian. If you have been encountering challenges when communicating with Americans or Indians, know that you are not alone. We have found this to be a frequent miscommunication between Americans and Indians in business exchanges. While Americans tend to explicitly say what they want to communicate without leaving much open to the imagination, Indians often require the other person to read between the lines and pick up on context cues rather than only hear the verbal message.
A few direct cultures include: U.S., Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, and Australia.
A few indirect cultures include: India, Japan, Korea, UK, and Belgium.
If you’re curious about whether you lean more direct or indirect in your communication style, reach out to us here to inquire about our ICBI™ (Individual Cultural Blueprint Indicator™) cultural self-assessment. This brief online assessment (10-15 minutes from beginning to end) measures your cultural tendencies in the work environment. Upon completion, the assessment generates a complete cultural profile that outlines all of your cultural preferences across 16 cultural variables, including direct vs. indirect.
If your communication style is more direct, people from the other end of the spectrum might see your communication style as confrontational and blunt. They might feel hurt, offended, or uncomfortable by your upfront approach to handle conflict. Since individuals on the other end of this cultural continuum tend to value harmony, they may avoid bringing up difficult conversations.
If your communication style is more indirect, people from the other end of the spectrum might perceive you as evasive or dishonest when you avoid difficult conversations or sidestep a request with a vague response. They might be confused about what you say since they do not understand your implicit communication style. This typically leads to a lack of trust.
Until you have the chance to take the ICBI™ and learn more about your own communication preferences, we have created the following top tips on how to bridge the gap between direct and indirect communicators:
If you exhibit more direct communication…
- Use open-ended questions and more nuanced verbiage when sharing your opinion and feedback
- Listen for what’s not being said and paraphrase what you heard
- Start by focusing on the relationship when bringing up difficult topics
- Take a step back to observe and notice the environment and context of the interaction
- Practice accepting answers that are not “yes” or “no”
- Be patient with longer responses than you may be used to
- Try communicating your message through a story
- Explore multiple ways to convey your message
If you exhibit more indirect communication…
- Practice saying “no” to requests or questions to which you cannot give an affirmative answer
- If your counterpart shares their thoughts bluntly, it’s nothing personal
- Avoid saying “yes” if you don’t mean it or don’t agree
- Express your messages as explicitly as you can
- Give “yes” or “no” answers with intention
- Share clear agendas and goals so others don’t need to guess
- Address issues quickly and clearly
- Speak specifically and concisely; only use words that you need to get your message across
For those that exhibit both direct and indirect communication…
- Remain aware that it is possible to communicate effectively in a style that is not your own
- Be conscious of your biases and how they may influence your perception of other communication styles
- Practice the opposite communication style to become more flexible in your ability to “code switch” across different cultures
In conclusion, in cultures that put directness before diplomacy, it is important that the truth be made clear, simple, and without deviation. In that way, everybody is certain about the issue being discussed– little is left to chance. Those (indirect) cultures that put diplomacy before directness will never directly say the truth (not the same as saying that they lie) if they feel that, by speaking the truth, they risk having a negative emotional impact on the people they are speaking to.
When interacting with others with different communication styles, our final tip is to have compassion for others, and more importantly, yourself. Communicating across cultures is difficult work and no one is given a guidebook of how to navigate it. If you’re frustrated from an interaction, it is likely the other side is as well. Have patience and be mindful of how one’s cultural background might impact their day-to-day communication styles. With the understanding that there is no right or wrong way to communicate, keep an open mind. When we create the space for ourselves and others to pause, notice, reflect, and react, increased understanding is often the result.