One of the joys of international projects is to work with people from different communication cultures. There are many prejudices and stereotypes regarding national cultures and many are startingly true.
One of the dimensions of culture is how direct we communicate.
Direct cultures (like the Dutch) value open and honest communication, even if the message may hurt. They are feared by indirect communicators for their bluntness and lack of tact.
Indirect communication cultures (like the Chinese) value politeness and a common understanding of the topic before zooming in to the crux of the question. This can lead to boundless frustration for a direct person.
Last week I had a head-on confrontation with directness:
“So, I ask you again, shall we hire a Technical Writer or not this year?”, I said.
“If the need was big we should do that.” says HB, head of the technical center.
“Yes, but we just agreed that the need is not big now. So you mean we should not hire for this position?”
I feel that I get a bit irritated. It is the third time I ask the same question, but I do not get a clear answer.
“If the need had been big, we should hire.”, she says again.
I get hot and angry and start to fume inside. Why not just say “No” if you mean that? Are you an idiot, I think to myself. Why do we waste our time with this kind of unclear indecisions?
Suddenly I realize that I had hit my head on the boardplank of communication culture. My Chinese colleague is a master of positive, friendly, implicit communication that is crystal clear to all other Chinese colleagues. Being a blunt barbarian, I need the black-and-white statements of yes/no. She expresses her opinion just as clear, but much more politely and correctly, according to her indirect communciation culture.
The Direct style usually starts in the center with the core of the question, and then winds out towards the secondary issues and connections.
The Chinese way is to start with the context and build to the center, sometimes even leaving the obvious statement unsaid.
I used to be an expert at the indirect implicit style, but now I have lived for ten years outside of Sweden, so I am getting rusty and impatient and blunt. Working in international teams has also trained me in being very explicit, to ensure that the objectives are clear. However, the drawback is that my communication style is less eloquent and sometimes rudely impolite.
In the meeting I take a step back, and use an indirect way of getting full clarity: – “I write here in the meeting minutes that we decided to not hire the Technical Writer, at least not for the next six months. Ok?”, I say. Then I look around and get affirmative nods from everyone.
My pulse is back to normal and I smile at my colleague when we start on the next topic.
One enigma is why communication directness is not part of the classic cultural dimensions, neither by Hofstede nor Trompenaars. The work of the two Dutch authors Geert Hostede and Fons Trompenaars has been truly helpful for me in uncountable situations. They have observed behaviour in different cultures and explain it through a small set of value dimensions. However, directness is not one on their list. I wonder why?