Cultural misunderstandings and the elephant in the room

2014

I’ve always been a fan of directly addressing the elephant in the room. I don’t enjoy conflict but I loathe avoiding it even more. In this way, I’m terminally a New Yorker. “Don’t dance around the issues. Shoot straight with me and tell me what you think!” Yet for most of the world, conflict is best addressed more subtly. Harmony and saving face are the driving values.

Direct versus indirect communication is one of the biggest challenges faced by multicultural teams. And the conflict is exacerbated when most of the communication takes place virtually. A blunt email, an obtuse response, or a silent team member can erode trust and productivity.

Most of the teams who take the CQ™ Assessment have a wide range of preferences regarding direct versus indirect communication, even if they’re a relatively homogenous team. Many things influence how directly you communicate, including your age, gender, personality, upbringing or cultural background. And the more culturally diverse the team, the more likely this communication differences will chafe at you.

You might be familiar with Edward Hall’s work on this cultural difference, something he called low versus high context. A direct, “low” context individual draws very little meaning from context and just pays attention to the words spoken. An indirect, “high” context individual pays as much attention to the context, body language, and to what’s not said as to what is said.

This can obviously be the cause of significant misunderstandings. So here are a few thoughts on how to understand either end of the direct/indirect continuum followed by some specific phrases you can try with your teammates.

Understanding Indirect Communicators (High Context)

Direct communicators should beware of assuming indirect communicators are passive-aggressive or even dishonest. There’s certainly a possibility that someone is “beating around the bush” to keep you in the dark; but there’s just as much chance the individual sees this as the most respectful way to communicate with you.

Most indirect communicators will be hesitant to give you bad news and will avoid giving you a direct answer because they were taught that speaking this way is more polite. They will change the subject or tell a story when put on the spot. To communicate disagreement, an indirect communicator might say something like, “That will be difficult,” or “Let me get back to you on that.” Meanings are implicit and silence is typically used as an expression of respect.

Understanding Direct Communicators (Low Context)

On the other hand, indirect communicators should beware of assuming direct communicators are insensitive and rude. Again, there’s the possibility that’s true but someone who speaks explicitly may just as well be coming from an orientation that says I respect you enough to tell it to you like it is.

The assumption is that everyone should be brutally honest because that’s the most efficient, healthy way to work together. Eye contact communicates trust and confidence. Even most direct communicators still value some measure of diplomacy and kindness but they will go to great lengths to be sure everyone “Says what they mean and means what they say”.

Handling Direct vs. Indirect Communication on Your Team

So how do you handle these differences on a multicultural team? Who adapts to whom? It’s difficult for any multicultural team to function in an entirely indirect way. Even if all the team members come from a high context (indirect) orientation, different contexts presume different meanings (e.g. the meaning of who sits where around a conference table may mean you’re the leader in one context and it may mean you’re an outside guest in another).

A few important strategies to address this on your team include:

  • Spend time understanding one another’s preferred communication style. A few minutes doing this can save hours of time and frustration.
  • Create a set of communication guidelines for the team. What should be handled via email, phone call, etc.? Be specific and clarify each team member’s understanding of the guidelines. It’s not enough to simply say “Be respectful in your communication” because some define respect as “being upfront” and others define respect as communicating through a third party.
  • Ask those on the extreme ends of the Direct/Indirect continuum to adapt their style as needed. Very direct communicators need to soften their blunt edge and very indirect communicators may need to be more explicit to ensure the rest of the team understands them.

Here are a few examples:

If you’re an Indirect Communicator (High Context)

Instead of…
“How about…?”
“I tend to agree…”
“I think maybe…”
“Well what if…”

Try…
“I strongly suggest…”
“That’s absolutely right. And here’s why…”
“My strong advice is…”
“I recommend…”

If you’re a Direct Communicator (Low Context)

Instead of…
“Give me your input on…”
“That’s wrong!”
“You should talk to him about…”
“You need to…”

Try…
“What do you think about…?”
“I’m not sure that’s right.”
“What if you talk with him…?”
“I wonder if…”

A team leader needs to model a culturally intelligent approach to helping multicultural teams address these communication differences. The leader should demonstrate the agility to communicate directly and indirectly as required by the situation, task, and team members involved. Being conscious of these differences combined with an intentional plan for bridging them will improve your team’s productivity.

Direct versus indirect communication surfaces everywhere, be it office communications, classroom discussions, or family interactions. What strategies work for you to effectively approach the elephant in the room?

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.