Direct Communication vs. Indirect Communication

What You'll Learn
  • In cultures with direct communication style both literal truthfulness as well as efficiency in communication are highly valued and to some extent are a higher priority than personal or political sensitivities, especially in a business setting
  • In indirect cultures, directly communicating negative information is seen as impolite and crude, even in a business setting
  • Intense conflict can occur if two parties are unaware of the other's communication style

What is the best way to communicate with others?

In cultures with direct communication style (which tend to correlate with task-oriented cultures), such as U.S. Americans, Australians, Germans, and Anglo Canadians, both literal truthfulness as well as efficiency in communication are highly valued and to some extent are a higher priority than personal or political sensitivities, especially in a business setting. Saying "No" or "I don't know" is considered both honest and respectful of the party, since it does not mislead them or lead to "game-playing." Problems are felt to be solved more rapidly if open and frank discussion is encouraged.

In indirect cultures, on the other hand (Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Saudi Arabians, for example), directly communicating negative information is seen as impolite and crude, even in a business setting. In these situations, polite excuses or evasions, which both parties usually know and recognize as such, are given, and in extreme cases even outright fictions are invented—again with recognition by both parties that a diplomatic strategy is being employed. Problems are felt to be solved more productively if they are handled with tact and discretion.


Between these two styles, intense conflict can occur if the two parties are unaware of the other's style and how it works.


Tips for direct people

  • Soften your statements and ease into topics gradually. Any kind of adverse news or opinion should be mitigated. Indirect people generally can hear "between the lines" very well, so they will understand you loud and clear.
  • Likewise, learn to "listen between the lines." Indirect people often couch important information in softer terms that direct people may miss if they are not paying close attention. If you are not sure, ask (diplomatically! See below) for further clarification.
  • Avoid outright demands for answers, such as "Why?" "Why not?" "When can you have this?" "Are you on board with this or not?" You will be at least as effective and far more diplomatic if you say "Could you give us a little background on that? Can you tell us a bit about your thinking/position on that? How do you see this playing out?"
  • Be patient if you don't get your answers on the spot. Often relationship-oriented groups need to confer privately before giving answers. Simply express that you would like to hear more from them on that issue and let them get back to you. If they don't get back to you, remind them gently in a friendly phone call.

Tips for indirect people

  • Realize that direct people are far more reassured to hear absolutely sincere answers than they are with a gentle "letdown." It is a sign of trust and respect to express your true position without delay.
  • Hearing very specific questions or requests for clarification from direct people is not a sign of aggression on their part, it is a sign of discomfort (sometimes anxiety) that they do not feel sure about the situation. They may even worry that you are misleading them or have insincere intentions.
  • It's good to be diplomatic, but be sure that your direct counterpart fully understands the implications of what you are saying. Direct people often feel as if they have to work very hard to understand indirect people, and it can be exhausting for them.
  • If you cannot give immediate responses to their concerns, reassure them that you will indeed answer them as soon as possible. It is very helpful if you can give some kind of time frame in which you will answer.