I am off the charts on direct communication. Left to my own devices, I speak in bullet-point staccato statements. I follow the Joe Friday view of speaking, "Just the facts, ma'am".

Yet, I worked quite successfully in both the Middle East and Asia, where nuanced communication is the norm and as much can be learned from what is not said as from what is said. How? By adopting five behaviors:

Speaking slowly.

  • By pausing and speaking deliberately, you are able to think more efficiently and sound more professional and eloquent.
  • Tempering your pace helps avoid miscommunication, since you have time to notice the confused looks on someone's face.
  • This gives your brain a few extra moments to dig into your vocabulary for the most precise words. Using the correct words adds to the message that you really know what you are talking about. 

Soften your statements.

  • Ease into discussions gradually by starting with polite conversation. When you immediately jump into business, you can make someone from an indirect communication culture uncomfortable. Taking a few minutes at the start of a conversation to ask about the person and their well-being shows that you are not "all business".
  • Direct communicators use clear declarative sentences where there is no doubt of their position. This is not a great way to get your point across in Asia or the Middle East, where communication is softer and shows greater finesse. When you soften your language, you sound less blunt and frank. Over the years, I learned to use:
    • "may" or "might" rather than "should" or "must".
    • "maybe" or "possibly" rather than making a simple statement.
    • "please", "thank you", and "excuse me" frequently.

Pay attention to non-verbal language, including pauses, silence, and tone of voice.

  • Observe others in the country and try to decode their non-verbal communication. Most direct communicators are clueless about non-verbal language, since we tend to think all communication is in words. As such, we need to watch how people speak to understand the fullness of communication. My favorite approach is to sit in a café and watch how the people around me communicate with each other. It's good to know that raised voices are signs of engagement rather than harbingers of anger just below the surface.
  • Once you master social interactions, sit through a meeting and observe what happens. How do people react when someone else disagrees? Do they argue, fall silent and sulk, use their hands to hide part of their face, or seem to slink into their body like a turtle?
  • Compare non-verbal language to the words being said to determine if the response is accurate or face-saving. If someone says "yes" as they shake their head slightly or frown, they probably are merely being polite.
  • Study how silence is used. In many cultures where indirect communication is the norm, silence is a communication tool. Americans are known for hating a void, so they tend to jump into conversation rather than allow a vacuum. Malaysians, on the other hand, believe that remaining silent for a few seconds shows that they are carefully considering your question as well as their response.

Use extra care when asking for a decision or an answer.

  • Before asking for a response, be sure to provide a great deal of background and context. People from indirect communication cultures need much more of this and can often become frustrated when a direct communicator asks a question without providing sufficient background. A tip I learned was to pretend I was explaining the situation to a six-year-old. By providing this level of background, the indirect communicator can more easily respond.
  • Use open-ended, non-leading questions. When we're direct communicators, we expect answers to be equally direct – yes or no. While black and white choices might work at home, they are not particularly helpful with indirect communicators who will most likely tell you what they think you want to hear. By asking questions that require statements, you allow the person to give an accurate response.
  • Probe with polite questions until you are certain you have been understood. This should be done if you are not certain about a response you were given. The best rule of thumb is to learn to ask the same question several ways so you can determine the actual answer.

Hide disagreement in elaborate and diplomatic words.

  • We won't always agree with what someone says, but we definitely want to avoid conflict, confrontation, and tension when this happens. Rather than say, "You're wrong", a more tactful approach would be to say, "I see what you're saying. Have you considered …" or "That's a valid point. To build on that, I'd add …"
  • Use phrases such as "it will be difficult" or "let me get back to you" instead of saying no to a request.

What tips would you offer someone to improve their communication to be culturally sensitive? As a CultureWizard user, you can review our Country Profiles for specific countries to learn about their communication tendencies.