Indirect and Direct Communication in a Business Setting

One of the greatest — and subtlest — challenges in global business is managing differences in communication style. Imagine the following situation. Peter, an American manger, is organising the installation of innovative design software for a Japanese marketing company. Peter works on a brief, and estimates the final date of installation to be in 30 days. He communicates this to the Japanese company, and they respond by thanking him profusely for selecting the date and mention how eager they are to get the installation in place. However, the next day, Peter is surprised to find a frantic call from his boss about how upset the Japanese company is about the installation date, and the need for it to be a lot sooner, otherwise they will lose a lot of potential clients.

In your communication toolbox, direct and indirect skills are like a hammer and screwdriver; both are helpful, but you need to use the right tool at the right time. 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.

However, 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 recognise 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.

Here are some useful pointers to identifying the type of communication used by clients or employees:

Direct Communication Indirect Communication
Tell it like it is. The facts speak for themselves. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Tell someone what you think they want to hear.
Honesty is the best policy. Being polite is more important than being honest.
It’s okay to say no. Avoid saying no; say “maybe” or “possibly,” even if you mean “no.”
The truth is more important than sparing someone’s feelings. Don’t beat around the bush. If the truth might hurt, soften it.
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Read between the lines.
Take communication at face value. Handle communication to save face.
Time is money. Get to the point. Small talk before business is important.
It’s okay to disagree with your boss at a meeting. Criticism of others, especially people with more authority, should be unspoken or careful and veiled.

One critical piece of advice is to remember that when you’re communicating with someone from a less direct culture, you can’t take everything you hear at face value. It is a hard element to grasp, but where you work in a global company where there is continuous communication with people from different cultures, it is vital to not assume from our pre-built presumptions, and ask questions where needed.

A second tip is to always be on the lookout for the difference between the actual message you hear and the “meta-message.” There are many ways to interpret messages and intentions. By discovering these different interpretations, it is helpful to send out probes that enable you to hopefully gather more information about the true meaning of their communication. This may come in a form of reconfirmation, or asking if they would prefer a different date or time of completion of a project.

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