Cross-cultural communication can be very tricky. Especially when people from indirect cultures communicate with people from direct cultures, and vice versa. The potential for misunderstandings is huge.
This was one of the topics I taught this week. Craig Storti uses the dialogue concept (which was developed by Alfred Kraemer) in his book “Figuring foreigners out.” The idea is to bury cultural differences inside a small dialogue to make people think.
I am especially fascinated by the following dialogue between an American employer and an Asian employee.
Ms. JONES: It looks like we’re going to need some people to come in on Saturday.
Mr. WU: I see.
Ms. JONES: Can you come in on Saturday?
Mr. WU: Yes, I think so.
Ms. JONES: That’ll be a great help.
Mr. WU: Yes. Saturday’s a special day, did you know?
Ms. JONES: How do you mean?
Mr. WU: It’s my son’s birthday.
Ms. JONES: How nice. I hope you all enjoy it very much.
Mr. WU: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.
One reason I find this one so fascinating is that even I did not pick up on everything. Of course, I am not a specialist for Asian indirectness. But would you have noticed that the first two replies from Mr. Wu are an indirect ‘no’?
Ms. Jones did not realize that already her first opening sentence was perceived as an indirect request. Neither did she realize that Mr. Wu answered twice in the negative, but in his indirect style. He was probably wondering why she does not get it, so he tries to be more direct but without success. I did realize that, in the end, they both thought that they had understood each other, but didn’t. Mr. Wu will not come to work on Saturday but Ms. Jones still thought he would. Not a happy ending.
Since my students were all from indirect cultures, one exercise was to rewrite indirect sentences into more direct ones, so that their colleagues from direct cultures would get the message. I have not yet seen all the papers, but I can tell you that it was not an easy task for them. What they considered very direct was still fairly indirect. I guess it is the same for us, from direct cultures – it is hard to be more indirect, and not have the feeling that this way the message will never come across.
On the other hand, we need to realize that in situations where people from several cultures work together, indirect communication is not a good choice. Indirect communication is also called high context. It works well in situations where people have a lot common. Then it is not necessary to spell things out clearly. A lot can be implied and will still be understood because people have an intuitive understanding of each other because of the shared context. This is not the case in more individualistic contexts, nor in multicultural contexts. In these situations it is better to work towards a more direct communication style to avoid misunderstandings. Hopefully with a happier ending.