Culture Points is a series of posts that quickly explain broad cultural concepts, communication styles, norms, values, and orientations, which help us make sense of cultural differences and suspend judgement. These posts are like overlooks or viewpoints that can help us pause and gain perspective on any intercultural journey. They are part of our step-by-step guide to living abroad, Culture Trek.
Cultural norms and values influence how we communicate, both verbally and non-verbally. Researchers and educators have identified concepts and generalizations that help people from various cultural backgrounds understand how we speak, write, gesture, express, and interpret differently. One of these differences can be summed up as direct and indirect communication styles.
Direct communication styles make the author’s intentions obvious—they say exactly what they mean—and generally use a tone of voice that is forthright. Being explicit and unambiguous is usually the priority. These styles are used mostly in individualist cultures, and are more commonly valued in “Western” cultures and countries.
Indirect communication styles tend to hide or camouflage the speaker or writer’s true intentions and use a more nuanced tone. Oftentimes, a statement in an indirect style says one thing, but implies another meaning, often to avoid embarrassment or conflict. Instead, indirect styles tend to prioritize social harmony and agreement: “courtesy often takes precedence over truthfulness” (Oxford Research Encyclopedia). These styles are used mostly in collectivist cultures, and are more commonly valued in “Eastern” cultures.
A statement in an indirect style may seem evasive or suspicious to someone from a cultural background that favors direct communication. And, vice versa, cultures that prefer indirect styles might see some direct statements as rude or self-centered.
Of course, these are generalizations that should not be used to stereotype. Broad cultural norms and values like these should not be imposed on every individual that shares that cultural background; these frameworks just help us set expectations and add a layer of meaning to interpret and verify when interacting across cultures.