If you’re the kind of person who tends to “say what they mean and mean what they say,” what do you do when you work with someone who is not as direct? For many Westerners, the question of how to effectively communicate with cultures that communicate 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 for the value of communicating in a more indirect style.

If you think about it, the subtleties of indirect communication offer some distinct advantages. For example,

  • Indirect communication allows you to edit and adjust your message as you go. This may naturally prevent missteps, conflicts, and even cultural miscommunications.
  • Indirect communication will force you to become a better listener, to pay attention, to read body language, and look for nonverbal indicators. In turn, this can increases your perceptiveness.
  • Indirect communication allows you to say “No” in a non-offensive manner, especially when it comes to working with cultures that communicate indirectly, such as India, China, Japan, Asia, and many countries in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, tuning your ears and eyes for indirect communication across cultures takes time and practice. Fortunately, tools like RW3’s Culture Calculator are here to help you get a feel for what indirect communication might look like in an international business scenario. In the meantime, have a look at this training dialogue we use on the CultureWizard site:

How To Say ‘No’ in India

Background: Holger is Chief Technology Officer of a Munich-based children’s educational company. Raj is a manager at a Bangalore based programing firm. Holger recently hired Raj’s company to complete a few projects. This dialogue took place during the second project they worked on together.

RajGood morning, Holger. How are you?

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

RajOf course, Holger. Go ahead.

Holger: Did you get my notes that I sent Friday? The project outline?

RajYes. Reviewed it over the weekend.

Holger: Great. 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, a delayed response in India often masks a problem.

HolgerRaj, are you there?

Raj: Yes. Yes. Sorry.

HolgerThe timeline? Will it be a problem?

RajWill it be a problem?

For those that communicate indirectly, 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 a straight answer is often a “No” in hiding.

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

Raj: It might be very difficult. But it is not out of the realm of possible.

In this case, Raj’s conditional “Yes” is actually a “No.”

Holger: Oh, Raj, you’re the best! Our team will be thrilled. Thank you!

Holger is only listening for what he wants to hear, not the subtle “No” that Raj is actually communicating.

Raj: Thank you.

Holger: How about the change in programming language? Can your team handle C++ code?

Raj: You do not want to use Java, like last time?

Answering a question with a question is often used in lieu of a “No.”

Holger: That would make a problem for us. The other three teams I’m coordinating are all using C++.

Raj: Have 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.” Raj is indirectly communicating that his team is better suited to use the latest Java platform.

Fast forward to the project’s completion, 20 days passed its initial due date.

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

Raj: Oh, thank goodness. So glad to hear.

HolgerBut 3 weeks late? What was the problem.

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

Holger: WhatYou’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 that his team was unprepared for Holger’s request—many times. Situations like these, in which cultural miscommunications stem from a disconnect between direct communicators and indirect communicators, are not uncommon in the global business landscape. It can be challenging to effectively communicate across cultures when people from either direct or indirect cultures 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.

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!

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