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Bridging the Cultural Communication Gap

Updated: May 25, 2023

How to overcome common cultural communication differences.

Do you consider the destination or the journey to be more important?

In our office we are pretty evenly split. Some of us prefer flying direct and reaching our destinations quickly whilst others see the journey as an integral part and in some cases more important than the actual destination. In styles of communication we see a similar split.

  • The direct communicators believe that flying direct in order to reach the goal quickly is more important, with varying degrees of consideration given to the impact they have on those around them.

  • The indirect communicators on the other hand give greater consideration to the impact of their communication and how it is received.

What holds true for both camps is that to be effective across the globe one must be well versed in both direct and indirect communication.

The questions you ask are even more important in an indirect-communication oriented culture.

If you were born in a direct-communication oriented culture you will be used to “saying it as it is”. You place emphasis on the accuracy of the message. You will have learned to convey the meaning of what was being said in the words themselves and the responsibility for being accurate lies with the communicator and the focus was on the message itself.

Yet if you were born in an indirect-communication oriented culture your emphasis will be placed on the relationship, the feelings and the impact of the words you are saying. The message therefore cannot always lie directly in the words being said, which is why it is important to explore and ask questions to confirm the true meaning of what is being said. The onus therefore lies with the person listening. In fact, in an indirect-communication led culture not asking the right questions is considered a sign of incompetence.

We see daily examples around us of communication confusion, when direct and indirect communication oriented people meet.

  • Example 1: When asked if she liked the green tea, the woman replied: “My father would love this”. The direct communicator hears this and gives the woman some to take home for her father to try. The indirect communicator interprets that the woman didn’t like it and offers an alternative drink next time.

  • Example 2: A management trainer has put together a schedule for training and on the day prior to training runs through this with the key manager involved, who begins telling him about the local festival and how important it is to the local community, that all the families get together and share in the experience, going into great detail of the events that happen. The management consultant listens politely. The following morning when nobody shows up for the training he is perplexed. What the management trainer missed is the opportunity to ask when the festival was happening.

Learning how to package opinions in the form of stories is a skill direct-communication oriented executives must learn to be successful in indirect-communication oriented cultures.

The importance of stories in business has been given increasing weight by management consultants such as Tom Peters, who argues that people need to learn to tell stories to brand themselves effectively.

But stories have become a little lost in direct-communication oriented cultures where the emphasis on action and output has been used to increase effectiveness. By the same token, indirect-communication oriented executives in direct-communication oriented cultures must learn to shoot straight from the hip.

Achieving this is only possible by truly understanding the differences between direct and indirect oriented communication cultures.

  • Example 3: At a training course a direct-oriented communicator explained to me that: “Direct communication is showing respect. If I am in a meeting and I hear you say something that’s not right or what we agreed upon, I need to show I respect you and make sure that I correct it as quickly as possible so you don’t become the centre of miscommunication or dissemination of incorrect ideas. So I have to directly correct things because that keeps my integrity in tact and then we can get beyond it as quickly as possible.” Another person in the room who was from an indirect-communication oriented culture responded: “Respect! That’s not showing respect, that’s disrespectful. You never do that in public. You should give indirect hints in the meeting to say maybe that’s not exactly correct or that you would like to shed light from another perspective, but you don’t say that’s not correct or that’s not what we agreed upon."

So from an indirect communication perspective it was disrespectful, shaming the person and creating the perception that the person didn’t have the level of professionalism or insight that they are supposed to have, but from a direct communication perspective it was seen as respectful. For the indirect communication oriented cultures in the room this was a light bulb moment.

They could see where previously people had tried to honor them by being direct, which they had interpreted as disrespectful.

Indirect communicators must learn to:

  1. Address issues quickly

  2. Speak specifically and succinctly using only the words that they need to get their message across

Direct communicators on the other-hand must learn to communicate their message by:

  1. Telling stories

  2. Finding other ways to show agreement but ask permission to show another view

  3. Finding another time later in the week talk to them in private

  4. Highlighting another way, such as a relevant article or business case

  5. Using 3rd person mediator to put the message across more directly.

  6. Straight telling using proverbs

So why go to all that effort to learn new styles of communication?

It’s simple really. With around half the world being the opposite polarity to you, in order to communicate effectively and truly achieve the results and success you desire, you must bridge the communication gap.

Marco Blankenburgh

KnowledgeWorkx International Director

Direct and indirect communication styles provide a major challenge for leadership, performance management, negotiation, conflict resolution, sales, customer service and in teams. They affect what you prioritize in terms of what you consider important to share. Contact us to find out more about resolving these challenges.


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