If you’re the kind of person who tends to “say what they mean and mean what they say,” what do you do when working with someone who might not be as direct? For a great many Westerners, the question of how to communicate effectively with a culture that communicates indirectly is a vexing one. Culture indoctrinates us to think that your way of doing things is the “right” way to do things, and that applies to cultures that approach communication more directly. However, there is a great case to be made on the value of communicating in a more indirect style

If you think about it, indirect communication is subtle and sophisticated and offers some distinct advantages. It allows you to edit as you go and adjust your message. It may naturally prevent missteps and conflicts. It will force you to be a better listener, to pay attention, read body language and look for nonverbal indicators. It increases your perceptiveness, which can save you time and money. Allows you to say “No” in a non-offensive manner and gives you a distinct business advantage when it comes to working with India, China, Japan, Asia and the Middle East. Nevertheless, tuning your ears and eyes for indirect communication takes time and practice.

Have a look at this training dialogue we use on the CultureWizard site for an example of indirect communication. 

How To Say No in India

Holger is Chief Technology Officer of a Munich-based children’s educational company. Holger recently hired Raj’s company,

a Bangalore based programing firm, for a project. This is the second project that Holger and Raj have worked on together.

RajGood morning, Holger. How are you?

HolgerVery well, thank you. Raj, sorry to cut straight to the chase, but I have a meeting fast approaching.

RajOf course, Holger. Go ahead.

HolgerDid you get my notes that I sent Friday? The project outline?

RajYes. Reviewed it over the weekend.

HolgerGreat. So is this something your team can handle?

RajOf course. Delighted to.

HolgerAnd the timeline? Is it possible?

    Raj is silent.

(Unlike other Asian cultures where silence is used for contemplation, delaying in India often masks a problem.)

HolgerRaj, are you there?

RajYes. Yes. Sorry.

HolgerThe timeline? Will it be a problem?

RajWill it be a problem?

(Repeating the question often masks an issue.)

HolgerI really need this by May 15.

RajI will get back to you on this. We have a staff meeting every Tuesday morning. I will discuss with my team.

(Postponing an answer is often a NO in hiding.)

HolgerCome on, Raj, you gotta make this happen for us. Your team’s work is the first piece of the puzzle.

RajIt might be very difficult. But it is not out of the realm of possible.

 (A conditional YES, is actually a NO.)

HolgerOh, Raj, you’re the best! Our team will be thrilled. Thank you!
(Holger is only listening for what he wants to hear, not what’s being communicated.)

RajThank you.

HolgerHow about the change in programming language? Can your team handle C ++ code?

RajYou do not want to use Java, like last time?

( Answering a question with a question is often used in lieu of a NO.)

HolgerThat would make a problem for us. The other three teams I’m coordinating are all using C Plus Plus.

RajHave you not seen the latest Java platform? Huge memory and no problem with leakage. I Just met with head of Java’s India office last week, Executive Vice President B.K.S Shankar. Have you ever met him before?

(Changing the subject is usually a sign of a problem and a NO.)

June 5th (20 days past due)

HolgerRaj, my team and I just reviewed all the work your crew did and it’s wonderful. Top-notch!

RajOh, thank goodness. So glad to hear.

HolgerBut 3 weeks late? What was the problem.

RajWe needed the time for my team to learn C++.

HolgerWhat? You’re team had to learn an entirely new code?


HolgerJeez, Raj, why didn’t you tell me?

The truth is, given the nature of indirect communication, Raj did tell Holger--many times. At CultureWizard, we train individuals and groups about the 8 Dimensions of Culture that define workplace behavior, and one of the most challenging is when people from cultures that have either direct or indirect communication are thrust into a shared work environment. However, by increasing your cultural fluency and learning to look and listen for indirect communication cues you’ll avoid the kind of miscommunications that nearly derailed Holger and Raj’s project.

How about you?  Would you have caught the signs that Holger kept missing? What advice do you have for working with cultures that have direct or indirect communication? Let us know below!

Learn more about working across cultures. Get Started