Indirect Communication: Becoming Culturally Sensitive and Culturally Appropriate

by Jeff Holland

3 Things You Didn’t Know about Indirect Communication. See how it can affect your short-term trip.

Living in Africa for 12 years, I tried so hard to be part of the local culture. I learned the language. I ate the foods–never mastering the cooking, but boy, I loved to eat! But when it came to negotiating or talking about delicate matters, I often made a mess of things.

I was too direct. I remember a young man stopping by for a “short chat” about going to college. He meandered through the conversation with more weaving than the road of a mountain pass. Confused and hungry (I was late for dinner), I tried to politely ask Junior to get to the point.

That was all it took. Every bit of energy drained from his body. I had short-circuited his communication paradigm—everything he had learned over the years watching his granddad and dad and others of the village as they perfected the technique of asking for something, negotiating, or working through delicate situations.

I was the guy from across the ocean who came with the intent to show people the love and kindness of Jesus. Great intentions! But I broke the code of culture, seemed far less than loving, and probably made the young man wonder about this Jesus he had been following for the past couple of years.

Fortunately, I had a couple of old men who helped me repair the relationship and tried to teach me how to handle delicate matters with more social decorum.

I had missed the subtle art of indirect communication.

3 Things to Learn About Indirect Communication:

  1. Know the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Communication Styles:
    • Direct communication uses fewer words and strives for clarity. Clear and concise gets the job done—that is “task orientation.” It is about facts and making a case with proof, linear timelines, and a high value on “honesty is the best policy.” In fact, a direct communicator can easily feel like someone who does not get to the point is being deceptive or at least wasting time. And if you come from a place where “time is money,” that waste can be a relationship breaker. That was my downfall with that poor young man.
    • Indirect communication is more about the preservation of the human bond—that is “relational orientation.” To maintain the bond, you must master the use of the cultural nonverbal communication paradigms such as facial expressions, pauses, and tone—remember that indirect means that you communicate something without actually directly saying it. That is part of the art of implication rather than explanation. On top of that, relational communication seeks harmony over all things and appeals to common elements between the two parties to show how they are both aligned and in this together. When it comes to having to give a “yes,” “no,” or a specific time or date, an indirect communicator will often say what the person wants to hear to “save face” and maintain harmony in hopes that the relationship (which is the focus of the conversation) provides grace if expectations aren’t met.
  2. Realize that Direct and Indirect Communication is a Spectrum. All cultures and individuals have unique qualities and styles that lie along the spectrum. And in every culture, there are exceptions. Your home does not completely determine your direct or indirect style. For example, I come from Texas where people are thought of as no-nonsense, strait-shooters. But one of my good friends, a tried-and-true Native Texan, is more indirect than a corn maze. On top of that, different situations often bring out different communication styles. The area of Africa where I lived definitely leaned toward indirect communication in most situations. But if you crossed someone, you soon knew in no uncertain terms what ticked the person off!
  3. Practice these Helpful Hints in Indirect Communication:
    • Difference in Perspective: Remember that rivers rarely run straight. In other words, be patient! A journey down a winding river can be beautiful and exciting. Even challenging. When working with someone who is indirect, think of it as having good company on your winding adventure from Point A to Point B.
    • Difference in Communication Style: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 – NIV). In other words, use fewer words and pay attention to non-verbals. And control your temper when people communicate differently.
    • Difference in Value: Realize that honesty might be expressed as “I honestly want to preserve our relationship, and I find the ‘facts’ of less value than our relationship.”
    • Difference in Purpose: Avoid closed-ended questions that can be answered in one word like “yes” or “no.” Also, try not to ask leading questions. Let the conversation flow and follow their lead in valuing the process of securing relationships more than accomplishing tasks or gaining knowledge.
    • Difference in Social Arrangements: Don’t be afraid to have a mediator or go-between. Many indirect cultures are communal and utilize mediators while direct cultures avoid liaisons as they value independence. A good mediator who knows both cultures can help you learn and bridge cultural distance (like the two old men in my story).

I’ll be the first to admit that crossing cultural worldviews and communication styles is challenging. However, the more I learned and practiced the art of indirect communication, the more I found deeper relationships, greater sensitivity and understanding, and whole new patterns of showing respect.

We can all grow by learning to understand, appreciate and practice the art of indirect communication.


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