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Intercultural Business Communication: Direct and Indirect Communication

Updated on March 8, 2011

It is possible to communicate effectively with people from different cultures but not without effort. To be an ideal intercultural communicator you must understand that there is not “right way” for a culture to interact. A successful intercultural communicator understands the difference between direct and indirect communication.

Direct Communication

Direct communication is when the true intentions are revealed in the verbal messages. Direct also includes the senders’ wants, desires, and needs. Direct communicators are not as likely to analyze context for underlying meanings and will instead take the speakers words at face value. Direct speakers usually value the effectiveness and swiftness of short, direct answers that involve no further analysis. They expect and respect honestly and bluntness. Indirect speech can be viewed as weak, deceptive and vague.

Indirect Communication

Indirect communication is when the true intentions are hidden. It can be frustrating for a communicator if they don’t know whether the culture is direct or indirect. This type of communication is more passive and submissive. An indirect speaker  will not make a direct statement or directly answer a question that could be perceived to cause tension, or an uncomfortable situation. They are more likely to say “maybe” or “possibly” when the true answer is no. It is thought by an indirect speaker that being polite is more important than giving a true response. This concept is connected to the idea of “Saving Face”. Face is a sociological ideal that represents a persons honor, reputation, and self esteem. The Face concept will be elaborated on further in a future hub but simply put in indirect communication both the speaker and listener work to protect their own face and prevent the other from losing face. This is why to an indirect speaker direct speech is considered harsh and even rude.

The ideal international communicator will have researched the culture and observed communication behaviors. In the United States direct communication is usually preferred, as it is in most western cultures.. Many sayings or phrases reflect this, such as “Get to the point.” In other cultures, such as Asian, indirect communication is the norm and may value such things as small talk more.

How Time Relates

Whether a culture is direct or indirect is closely related to if it views time as a commodity. Cultures that are more direct don’t want to “waste time.” For example, a boss may ask an employee about a proposal that the employee does not agree with saying, “Hi Bob, What do you think of my project proposal?” In a direct culture, the answer might be, “Hey Tom, I’m not sure it’s going to be as effective as you presented it. I think we should redevelop it.” Bob was concise and to the point.

In an indirect culture the answer to this same question might be, “Hey Tom, I think you are a great presenter, and you did a good job. You will be great.” In the indirect response the employee did not reveal his true thoughts, instead choose to hide them. Bob did not want to risk insulting Tom so he instead focused on what was positive, Tom’s excellent presentation skills. Bob did not directly answer the question. This type of response could be viewed by a direct speaker as “wasting time” because of two reasons. Firstly it did not result in a useful constructive answer and secondly to get a useful constructive answer would need further conversation, using up more time. If this conversation occurred in a time sensitive situation, like right before a deadline, the gap between communication styles could cause confusion, and frustration.

How to Communicate with an Indirect Speaker

If you are a direct speaker and you are communicating with an indirect speaker be watchful of blunt responses. It’s important to remember that not insulting each other is valued higher than criticism, no matter how constructive. Be aware of nonverbal behaviors that contradict the indirect speakers response. These are clues to the true answer. For example, say you are in a new office and you asked an indirect communicator, “Can you make photocopies of all these documents and divide by subject into different files? I need them right away.” An indirect communicator will simply answer “Yes” and may even be enthusiastic about helping you. Then you might notice several hours have gone by and you ask again if this can be done, and you receive the same enthusiastic “yes”. The true answer is most likely no. The indirect speaker did not want to hurt the person’s feelings by saying “no” so they gave the answer the speaker wanted, even though it wasn’t true. For someone well versed in indirect communication he understands now the true answer and will not press the issue. He may try to find out why it can’t be done, maybe the employee doesn’t know how to make copies, or they don’t have the right files or they might not even have a copy machine available. For someone unfamiliar with indirect communication he can become extremely frustrated and confused. He may think the employee is purposely ignoring his requests, or is incompetent.

For a direct speaker to elicit an effective response from an indirect speaker it is useful to use open-ended questions, those that require more than a yes or no answer. Instead of asking, “Did you like Mary’s presentation?” ask “What do you think was the most useful from Mary’s presentation.” Be careful not to lead the speaker towards an answer such as, “I thought Mary’s PowerPoint wasn’t very organized, what do you think?” This type of leading question can be perceived as seeking agreement instead of seeking opinion. Do not put the indirect speaker in a position that will cause them to insult you with one answer; they will not chose that answer.

How to Communicate with a Direct Speaker

If you are an indirect speaker understand that subtle messages you send may not be picked up by others. Direct speakers may not interpret your behavior in the way you are accustomed to with other indirect speakers. Although it may be uncomfortable to be direct, recognize that this is the type of communication that is respected.

It is possible to provide a true response without feeling you are insulting the other. If you are asked a question and your answer is negative use the “sandwich technique” of provide one positive, one negative and one more positive. An example would be if you are asked, “What did you think of today’s seminar?” You may feel it was disorganized and unimformative, but an indirect speaker would not be comfortable stating this. Instead you could say, “I’m really interested in the topic of Project Management and it was a great idea to have a seminar on it. I got a little confused in the middle of it when the Power Point presentation didn’t match what the speaker was saying. I think we should do this again next year and invite people from other departments so everyone can benefit.” In this response you are able to compliment but also express your true thoughts in a non accusatory way. Blame is not being laid on someone and overall the statement is positive. The Compromise with this communication is to provide constructive criticism while still staying in your comfort range as an indirect speaker.

The ideal intercultural communication is able to effectively communicate with both direct and indirect speakers. He should know what is the norm of the culture and be prepared to adapt his style. Being alert to nonverbal behaviors will greatly improve the communication exchange. Understand that neither speaking style is “right”, both has it’s  benefits and it is necessary for to master both.


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