The Unwritten Rules of Direct and Indirect Communication

We are all governed by unwritten rules that we absorb—without thinking—from a young age. The rules we absorb are based on our country, culture, education, family and friends. Because of this, these unwritten rules have many variations all over the world. 

In this article we’ll review the unwritten rules of both indirect and direct communication cultures. While these rules are useful thinking tools, it’s important to remember that they’re only examples of two extremes: most cultures fall somewhere in between, or may follow a few of these rules, but not all. There is no one direct culture that follows all the direct rules, or one indirect culture that follows all the indirect rules!

Why are the unwritten rules of communication important?

We all apply unwritten rules naturally in our daily lives to determine what is correct or incorrect, acceptable or unacceptable. Unwritten rules shape our relationships.

If you only communicate with people who are exactly like you, then you probably don’t need to think about unwritten rules. In those relationships, both people probably use the same set of unwritten rules. 

But if you live, work, or socialize with people who are different than you are, then each person is likely to have a slightly different set of unwritten rules. To create the best possible relationship, each person must learn to communicate with a different rule set.

The differences between rule sets can be large (like between countries, who probably even have different communication mindsets!), medium (like the differences between dialects of the same language), or small (like between different teams in the same company).

When you join a new team at work, the new team may follow slightly different unwritten rules. Similarly, when you learn a new language you will need to also learn the unwritten rules. What is okay in your country or culture may be impolite in another.

Do I have to memorize the communication rules of every single culture?

No!

To make things easy, we begin by studying the two extreme ends of the unwritten rules of communication: direct, and indirect.

There will always be culture-specific nuances that you can master over time. Of course there are differences between two indirect communication cultures! And of course there are differences between two direct communication cultures!
However, until you feel comfortable switching between direct and indirect communication styles more generally, studying country-by-country nuance is often wasted.

Is it necessary to memorize all the direct and indirect rules?

No, you don’t need to memorize all the rules. In fact, it’s better if you learn the rules more generally, and internalize the rules by practicing different communication skills in real life. 

This way, using a different set of rules feels more natural.

How to Follow the Unwritten Rules

1. Understand the Purpose of the Unwritten Rules

Here is the most important thing to understand before following the unwritten rules: these rules are not carved in stone!

In other words, these are not unchanging, absolute communication laws. Instead, these are simplified guidelines. Their purpose is to help you understand the communication culture of the individual or group you are interacting with so you can adjust your communication style to suit your needs and goals. 

In fact, these rules are subjective. This means that depending on the situation, these rules can change or morph

This is especially true in situations in which many cultures are involved. In those cases, the communication culture usually becomes a mash-up of the many cultures involved. A strange mix of direct and indirect is not unusual—in fact, it’s often the norm!

2. Choose the Rules that Suit Your Situation

These rules are not the only way to business success! They are the rules research supports, and the rules that have helped us at Focus Cubed, and our clients. We hope that sharing them freely will help non-native speakers communicate at higher levels so they can develop stronger business relationships and better influence business outcomes.

3. Apply specific communication skills derived from these rules

Later in the guide, you’ll learn skills that will help you apply these rules in real conversations. You’ll not only be able to understand the rules, but actually use them in real meetings and interactions.

Remember, it’s not about memorizing the rules. It’s about developing a flexible mindset that you can adapt and feel comfortable communicating across varying cultural situations.

What about not following the unwritten rules?

Unwritten rules impact our communication success. So breaking the rules, even if you don’t know, can damage the relationships between you and others. But if you know and use the rules well, you can successfully impact and develop good relationships.

For example, what happens if you put a direct team member onto an indirect team? Indirect team members may think that person is a bit selfish, opinionated, and forward with their thoughts or questions, especially if they disagree openly in a meeting. 

What about the opposite? If you put an indirect team member with a direct team, they may be seen as too quiet. Or, if the indirect team member doesn’t offer opinions or questions, it can look like they are not interested in what’s being discussed or even that they don’t care about the team.

Why should I learn these unwritten rules?

In today’s globalized world, effective communication goes beyond mere language fluency. It involves matching your communication style to your audience. Unwritten rules provide an easy-to-understand framework to help guide your communication choices. When you’re aware of these rules, you can tailor your communication strategies to align with workplace expectations. 

Better communication means smoother meetings with fewer challenges!

For example, think about negotiations with potential business partners from a different country. The unwritten rules governing negotiation styles—such as direct versus indirect, or whether or not building a more personal relationship is necessary—can greatly influence the success of your discussions. Knowing whether to make your point assertively or with subtlety can determine whether the deal flourishes or falters. By understanding these unwritten rules, you can position yourself as a thoughtful and adaptable communicator, building rapport and fostering positive relationships.

Additionally, learning the unwritten rules of various cultures gives you insight into the underlying motivations and intentions behind people’s actions. This understanding can foster empathy, preventing hasty judgments and allowing you to respond with patience and composure.

Direct Rule 1: It’s important to promote mutual understanding and progress.

Rather than speaking softly or implying a message without saying it, do your best to say what you mean directly. 

 

For example, a coworker asks about your availability to stay late on the following day. In direct cultures, it’s expected that you will say, “I’m sorry, but I’m unavailable,” “Unfortunately, I can’t,” or another kind of statement that makes your unavailability obvious. 

 

Even if you say something like, “That might be difficult…” your coworker will likely still believe it is possible to persuade you to stay late. 

In the interest of mutual understanding, you must speak clearly and thoroughly, even when some things may seem obvious or unnecessary to say. In the most extreme direct cultures (like America) there is nothing so obvious that it’s not worth saying.

By speaking indirectly, direct communicators may not understand what you’re talking about, or “pick up” your message. Your questions, requests, or responses may be misunderstood or missed completely.

 

Remember, in many direct cultures, if you don’t decline directly, you are silently agreeing. That means if you don’t explicitly decline, your conversation partner may  think you are agreeing. This is true in one-on-one conversations, and also in group meetings.

Direct cultures value mutual understanding and forward progress momentum more than group harmony. This means that direct communicators will almost never ‘beat around the bush’—instead, they say what they mean in a way that is obvious.

 

The purpose is to be considerate of others' time (the assumption is that a direct conversation is a faster one), to ensure that all parties understand each other and the topic at hand 100%, and to keep minds focused on the goal.  

 

Note!

There are some exceptions to this rule! Some direct cultures, like Australia, America and Canada shy away from giving negative feedback directly. If you have to give negative feedback, you can be softer or more indirect. 

 

However, other places—such as Germany, Holland and France—highly value direct negative feedback.

Indirect Rule 1: It’s important to be agreeable and to preserve harmony.

Observe by listening and getting a feel for the atmosphere in the room. Speak when you can add to the harmony, generally by agreeing. Silence is fine and sometimes most appropriate or preferred if you are new to the group or less senior than others.

People may think you are inappropriately judgemental or opinionated. If you continue with this behavior, you may be excluded from the group, either formally or informally.

To ensure harmony within the group. To build trust, especially if you are new or are less senior than others.

Direct Rule 2: When speaking, be considerate by communicating logically, clearly, and to the point.

There is a saying in English-speaking cultures about presentations: “Tell them what you’re about to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said.” In other words, communicators that excel within direct communication cultures often repeat the main points of their message often.

 

To do this skillfully, direct cultures often favor a logical framework for thinking. Americans often use something like our ‘Get to the Point’ skill, where speakers state their opinion, list three reasons for their opinion, and end by stating their opinion clearly one more time.


In France (considered between direct and indirect, but direct-leaning), speakers are taught to begin by evaluating one side of the argument, then the other side of the argument, and finally synthesizing the information as a whole to come to a conclusion. This is considered the natural flow of a logical conversation.

Beating around the bush, or speaking around a topic, is often viewed as a sign of nervousness or indecisiveness in direct cultures. You may be viewed as less capable than your peers if you do not or can not express your opinion clearly and decisively when asked.

The goal of this rule is to promote focus, save time, and keep participants looking toward the “next step” needed for achieving the desired outcome. The aim is to be clear and logical, promoting mutual understanding.

Indirect Rule 2: When speaking, be considerate by taking into account the situation of each individual and the group as a whole.

When communicating, consider things from the other person’s perspective and attempt to put their feelings first. A thorough understanding of your communication partner will so you do not accidentally cause them to lose face.


One of the primary ways to do this is by using general, contextual language.

Communicating in an explicit or overly-obvious way to an indirect team can give the wrong impression. First, you may seem to be talking down to the listener, or stating the obvious. It may make listeners feel like your comments have very little meaning or contribute very little. Essentially, you may be seen as being inappropriate or inconsiderate, damaging rapport and even relationships.

The goal of this rule is to avoid direct agreement, which could damage the group harmony. By communicating using more general, contextual language, you leave room for different interpretations. Room for different interpretations decreases the chance of direct disagreement.

 

Learn more:
In the West, this unwritten rule was first described by Edward Hall in his book Beyond Culture. In it, he describes high-context and low-context cultures. Context describes how much of the communicated message is left unsaid and handled by a common knowledge of a shared environment. When we talk about context here, it can mean shared culture, shared language or even, for example, shared experiences. In general, the higher the context, the more is left unsaid.

 

Across the globe, cultures that are high-context tend to have a long history, tend to be relationship- or community-oriented, and are often more uniform demographically. Cultures that are low context tend to take in more immigrants and are often younger.

 

There is also an excellent chapter about this in "The Culture Map" by Erin Meyers.

Direct Rule 3: When it comes to making sure a message is understood, the speaker has more responsibility than the listener.

Follow the rule by focusing on what is being said, rather than trying to read between the lines or looking for a second message “underneath” the obvious one. In general, direct culture communicators will say what they mean.

 

In direct cultures, reassuring the other party that there is mutual understanding is important. Therefore, the responsibility of the listener is to confirm that the meaning is understood.

 

Some useful phrases are:
“What I’m hearing you say is… Is that correct?”
“So you’re saying that… Am I getting that right?”

When speaking to a direct culture communicator, if you look for another message besides the obvious one, you may hear a message they didn't mean to send—a message that really isn’t there! Usually, direct culture speakers will say what they mean, and it’s best to stick to that, especially at work.

 

Of course, most cultures have a tendency to be more indirect if the topic is unpleasant. In a serious situation, reading between the lines is completely okay.

The goal is to ensure understanding and keep communication clear. It's common for direct speakers to meet to “make sure that everyone is on the same page.”

Indirect Rule 3: When it comes to making sure a message is understood, the listener has more responsibility than the speaker.

To follow this rule, listen for the message that is beyond face value. You cannot listen only for the response you expect to receive. Instead, you must listen for what is being communicated, not only what is being said. 

 

For direct culture individuals, this can take time to learn. I suggest you observe and then find someone who is also in the same team to help you to learn the subtleties. Be patient with yourself. Mentally review conversations after the fact to double-check whether something was missed.

 

By following this rule you are showing respect, demonstrating strong listening skills, and playing by the rules! 

Breaking this unwritten rule, may over time, isolate you from the group. This is because the group will have a difficult time knowing if you can really understand what is happening. As a result, this will cause them to hesitate to include you in more delicate or critical discussions. It is vital to find a coach or mentor to better ensure success.

In countries that follow this rule, listeners are expected to observe the underlying meaning or second meaning beneath the surface of the words. Good communication in countries such as India, Japan, France, and China for example, often requires subtlety by layering one meaning beneath another.

 

Learn more:

In the West, this unwritten rule  was first described by Edward Hall in his book Beyond Culture. In it, he describes high-context and low-context cultures. Context describes how much of the communicated message is left unsaid and handled by a common knowledge of a shared environment. When we talk about context here, it can mean shared culture, shared language or even, for example, shared experiences. In general, the higher the context, the more is left unsaid.

 

Across the globe, cultures that are high-context tend to have a long history, tend to be relationship- or community-oriented, and are often more uniform demographically. Cultures that are low context tend to take in more immigrants and are often younger.

 

There is also an excellent chapter about this in "The Culture Map" by Erin Meyers.

Direct Rule 4: Paying attention and expressing interest through comments, clarifying questions, and interjections is considered positive participation in discussion.

In direct cultures, when someone is speaking, you probably already know that it’s polite to make eye contact and nod your head. Additionally, it’s important to make filler comments, or what we call Level 1 Smart Comments, to show the speaker that you are listening and confirm for them that you are understanding what they’re saying.

 

Some Level 1 Smart comments:

  • “Interesting.” “That’s a good point.” etc.
  • “That sounds [difficult, interesting, etc.]”
  • “Really?”

Sometimes, especially in groups of casual friends, this can lead to people talking at the same time or talking over each other. It’s not considered rude!

 

However, in professional settings it’s always best to wait for a short pause before making your comment. It doesn’t’ have to be loud or long—it just has to be a comment.

 

In general, presentations in direct cultures tend to be more participatory. This means that the speaker will try to engage or invite audience member comments. In presentations, it’s best to keep any smart comments to yourself unless you are called upon.

 

The exception is if you have a question. In that instance, you should politely interrupt, especially if the speaker is not stopping.

 

A skilled communicator will often pause in the presentation to ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” Even if you have no questions, that is a perfect opportunity to show that you are paying attention by making a simple comment about the presentation so far. For example, “No questions, but I’m very impressed with the data in your presentation so far.” This would be an excellent comment to show that you are closely paying attention.

If you allow another person to speak for a long time without making a comment or asking a simple question, they may think you aren’t paying attention.

In direct cultures, participation and making comments is the main way you can show the speaker that you care. The goal of this rule is to show your interest in what is being said, and that you want to understand.

Indirect Rule 4: Being present and speaking only when you have something meaningful to add is considered as positive participation.

Be patient and observe. Follow the cues of others who are already part of the group. How do they act and respond? Take notes rather than speak right away. Listening is usually more important. Wait until the timing is appropriate or you are called upon. 

 

Remember, in indirect cultures, meetings are most often for formalizing decisions that have already been made. If you are hoping to speak up and add to a decision making process in the meeting, it may already be too late.

Generally with all indirect cultures, little will be said to you directly. You are expected to read between the lines (Indirect Rule #3). As a result, people may either hold off speaking to you about your behavior, or try to warn you in ways that may be subtle. (“[Laura] is talkative today!” “[Warren], you were very enthusiastic in today’s meeting.”)

In indirect cultures, commenting frequently out of turn draws unnecessary attention to the individual, and away from the group. Drawing attention can be thought of as selfish.

Direct Rule 5: In business, confidence in an individual or group’s ability to deliver results is what builds trust.

First, this rule applies to groups of people more than individuals. When dealing with individuals, it’s more of a person-by-person preference.

 

When you are building relationships with delegations of direct culture communicators, it’s most important to focus on concluding business first. Once business has been accomplished, then direct culture communicators are willing to relax and focus more on building relationships.

 

The general expectation is an introduction (if people haven’t met yet) and then a short activity that helps participants become comfortable and familiar with each other. Beyond that, no relationship building is necessary or expected.

 

Direct culture communicators can appreciate building more personal business relationships across teams or organizations. However, it often depends on the person, and it is not expected. Additionally, it is only considered positive once after all other business objectives have been accomplished, or if both parties agree.

If you insist on relationship-building activities that are longer than an hour or don’t contain an element of work, direct culture communicators may feel as though their time is being wasted. They may not understand the purpose of the activity, or they may feel impatient.

When building trust, direct cultures don’t place as large a role on relationship-building. Once it has been established that all parties are capable, that is enough to proceed with business comfortably, even if the parties don’t personally know each other well. It is not uncommon to leave business relationships at work. When a team member leaves the team, it is not expected that any former coworkers will continue any kind of relationship with them.

 

The goal of this rule is to focus on getting work done as efficiently as possible. It is a way of being respectful of others' time.

Indirect Rule 5: In business, ongoing strong relationships with individuals and groups is what builds trust.

Pay just as much attention to getting to know your business partner as getting to know their business. For each amount of time you spend conducting business, expect an equal amount of time getting to know your client or business partner.

 

This may mean attending after-hours events. If you are on a work trip, getting to know each other at lunches, tourist locations, or other non-business activities may be expected before any "real business" is actually conducted. 

 

This can be challenging for people who keep their business lives and their personal lives strictly separate. In this case, do your best to be patient and remember this is an exercise in building trust. If you invest time in building these relationships with business partners and clients, then future business interactions will go smoothly.

If you don't follow this rule, you may find clients, business partners, or coworkers stalling or de-prioritizing your requests.

 

Remember, for many people in indirect cultures, lack of attention to the relationship signals lack of attention to the business relationship, too. While many people have heard the phrase "It's not personal; it's just business," that attitude doesn't exist in cultures that follow this rule. It will be very challenging to effectively conduct business if an investment in relationships is not made.

The goal of this rule is to build trust. In many indirect cultures, trust is based not only on skill or capability, but the quality of the personal relationship. The thinking is, how can I trust this person with my business if I can’t trust them as a person, first?

 

Learn More:

Dr. Erin Meyer describes the two extremes in the way that trust is built in a business environment: task-based trust, and relationship-based trust.

 

Task-based trust is about confidence in someone's ability to deliver: their ability to perform well, execute business objectives skillfully, and support company goals. This type of trust normally grows naturally as people work together over time.

 

In other cultures, both task-based and relationship-based trust is required for business relationships. Indeed, a strong personal relationship might significantly change the way in which a business relationship is created. In many cases, business relationships are personal relationships. If a beloved coworker leaves for a different company, their closest subordinates might even go with them! A primary example of this type of culture is China.

 

Of course, these are the two extremes. Japan is a country somewhere in the middle: while mostly a task-based culture, to really bond with a team, you may have to develop a more personal relationship with them through after work events like nomikai or special occasions like bonenkai.

Direct Rule 6: When communicating across departmental or organizational lines, it’s generally considered appropriate to directly approach the person you need to speak to, even if they are above or below you in hierarchical status.

If it is necessary to communicate across departmental or organizational lines, feel free to directly contact the person you need to speak with. If they don’t respond to you within a reasonable time frame, then it may be time to contact someone adjacent or closer to your hierarchical level.


Some cultures take this even further. For example, in Dutch companies it’s not uncommon for personal relationships to be made across hierarchical lines—such as a division manager going for lunch with a president.

If you attempt to follow a hierarchy and contact your equivalent in another department or organization as a liaison, they may be confused or even mildly irritated to have their time wasted.

The goal of this rule is to save as much time as possible and be efficient.

Indirect Rule 6: When communicating across departmental or organizational lines, going through the proper hierarchical channels ensures better relationships.

If you need to approach someone at a lower or higher hierarchical level than your own, get permission first. This is true whether you are speaking with them in person, or over email. Furthermore, once you've secured permission it's polite to keep your original point of contact in the loop (if via email, to CC), even if you don't expect them to contribute to the conversation.

If you approach someone at a different level over email, the most common result is that you won't get a response. The recipient, whether they are higher or lower on the hierarchy relative to your own position, may think the email was sent in error or simply choose to ignore your mistake.

 

In the worst-case scenario, you unintentionally insult someone, or risk looking a bit foolish.

 

If you're not sure who you should reach out to, try talking to a coworker with more experience, or your direct supervisor. They should be able to offer you advice.

The goal of this rule is to preserve and show respect to the hierarchy within an organization. By communicating through your hierarchical equivalent, you are demonstrating respect for the status and power differences of different roles. 

 

Learn More:

When it comes to building relationships up or down the hierarchy, it really depends on how much power distance there is in any given culture. Power distance is another scale defined in the GLOBE project. It is the extent to which a community or organization accepts and endorses authority, power differences, and status privileges.

 

Many indirect communication cultures are also high power distance cultures. 

 

By following this rule, you demonstrate respect for someone's rank, expertise, and seniority. It demonstrates your willingness to "stay in your lane."

 

Notable high power distance countries are Japan, Nigeria, Korea, and China.

 

A similar and related idea in research is hierarchical vs egalitarian societies.

 

A hierarchical organization sorts people into groups with increasing or decreasing levels of power and authority. An egalitarian organization attempts to give all people the same level of power and authority.

 

While hierarchy can sometimes have a poor reputation, there is a key component to hierarchy that many people forget: just as the subordinate owes respect, obedience, and fealty to their superior, the superior owes mentorship, support , and security to the subordinate. This is sometimes called paternal leadership.

Direct Rule 7: The boss is a leader among equals, so it is generally appropriate to respectfully disagree.

Be honest and clear with your superiors. This doesn’t mean that you can be rude! It simply means that you should be as honest with your boss as you would your other coworkers.

If you never speak up against your boss, they may slowly come to distrust your opinion. You may be viewed as a “yes-man”— someone who always says “yes” to the boss in order to make the boss like you. In general, being a “yes-man” is not a positive thing, and is not a great way to build strong relationships with your team members.

In most western-based companies, there is the belief that disagreement and critical discussion results in more creative, effective outcomes. In western nations, there is a saying from the bible: “As iron sharpens iron, so does man sharpen man.”. Therefore, the goal of this rule is to minimize risk by prioritizing creativity in addition to creating better employees over time.

 

Additionally, the goal of this rule is to build a strong, clear relationship with your superior. Trust is based strongly on honesty, even when that honesty involves disagreement.

Indirect Rule 7: It is common to defer to the opinions of those with authority and/or seniority, especially in public.

Even if you don’t agree with a more senior stakeholder, present a united, harmonious front to others. Agreeing publicly is necessary to protect the harmony of the group, and avoid embarrassing yourself, your boss and potentially your team.

Breaking this rule means risking the positive relationships with both your colleagues, your boss and any others who are at the meeting. Cultures that follow this rule usually consider this kind of respect to be extremely important.

Like Indirect Rule 6, the goal of this rule is to preserve and show respect to the hierarchy within an organization. By communicating through your hierarchical equivalent, you are demonstrating respect for the status and power differences of different roles.  

 

By following Indirect Rule 7, you demonstrate respect for someone's rank, expertise, and seniority. It demonstrates your willingness to be a "team player" and shows that you are willing to preserve the reputation of the team (because, in many cases, the team leader is a symbol of the team as a whole!).

 

Learn More: 

This rule has the same origins as Indirect Rule 6: power distance and hierarchy.

 

Power distance is a scale defined in the GLOBE project. It is the extent to which a community or organization accepts and endorses authority, power differences, and status privileges.

 

Many indirect communication cultures are also high power distance cultures.

 

Notable high power distance countries are Japan, Nigeria, Korea, and China.

 

A related idea in research is hierarchical vs egalitarian societies.

 

A hierarchical organization sorts people into groups with increasing or decreasing levels of power and authority. An egalitarian organization attempts to give all people the same level of power and authority.

 

While hierarchy can sometimes have a poor reputation, there is a key component to hierarchy that many people forget: just as the subordinate owes respect, obedience, and fealty to their superior, the superior owes mentorship, care, and respect to the subordinate. This is sometimes called paternal leadership.

Direct Rule 8: To maximize creativity and limit business risk, polite direct disagreement is encouraged.

To follow this rule, speak up when you have a disagreement or concern. You don’t have to disagree in a confrontational way—disagreeing softly is okay. The most important thing to be honest. Remember—direct cultures prioritize mutual understanding and progress more than group harmony.

Never disagreeing can create distrust between you and your coworkers. In general, people want to know your “true feelings.”

Often, there is no separation or difference between your privately held opinion and the opinion you speak publicly. In a direct communication culture, that could be considered deceptive or harmful.


If you’re not ready to share your true feelings about a topic, it’s okay to say so. Saying, “I’m not sure of my opinion yet,” is better than just agreeing with the majority.

In most western-based companies, there is the belief that disagreement and critical discussion results in more creative, effective outcomes. In western nations, there is a saying from the bible: “As iron sharpens iron, so does man sharpen man.”

Therefore, the goal of this rule is to minimize risk by prioritizing creativity in addition to creating better employees over time.

Indirect Rule 8: When disagreeing, do so in a non-confrontational manner.

Disagreement is a delicate matter that may be socially inappropriate at times. If you must disagree, try to do so privately in a one-on-one context, and in a non-confrontational way.

 

Meetings are usually not the place for disagreements (in indirect cultures, meetings are not usually used for decision-making anyway). 

 

Here are some examples of indirect disagreement:

  • “I don’t understand the point about the vendor being too expensive. Could you please elaborate?” = (I think the price of the vendor is just fine.)
  • “I think my understanding of the plan’s success is slightly different from what I’m hearing. Could you please explain more about why you think it performed poorly?”

 

Using phrases that make your language softer, such as “slightly,” “a bit,” “I’m not sure,” or “maybe” is always recommended when disagreeing non-confrontationally. 

 

Additionally, you should always be as polite as you are able, using words like “please” and “I’m sorry.”

 

You can make your disagreement even softer by beginning the conversation with a compliment.

 

Note: This rule doesn’t always apply to the most senior member in a room or situation!

Disagreeing publicly in an indirect communication culture may harm your relationships with your colleagues or boss. If this behavior is in front of others, it may also harm the reputation of your firm. It will almost certainly harm your own reputation (though as with all communication rules, cultural “outsiders” are usually given a little bit of leeway). 

 

As with what happens to most indirect unwritten rules when you break them, you find yourself outside of the group for having damaged any rapport. And due the nature of indirect cultures, direct culture people may not realize this until much too late. Again it is key to find an ally to guide you. 

 

Consider carefully how you can disagree while allowing the other person to feel as secure about it as possible.

The goal of this rule is to protect the relationship. The best way to protect a relationship is by helping the other person save face. If you disagree publicly, you risk embarrassing them in front of other colleagues, which will then damage your working relationship with them.

Direct Rule 9: Feedback, even when negative, can build trust and rapport.

When asked, provide specific, honest feedback to a coworker. The key word here is “specific.” The feedback can be short, but it should demonstrate that you paid close attention to what your coworker said or did. It should also answer the question “Why?”

 

For example: “I really liked your presentation. The slides were beautiful.” or “Your presentation was incredibly useful. The amount of data you assembled must have taken a long time.” or “I’m a little worried your presentation doesn’t go deep enough. Could you add another slide about supply chain logistics?”

 

Be careful about providing unsolicited feedback. Sometimes that kind of feedback is unwelcome. If you’re not sure if feedback is desired, you can always ask, “Would you like feedback?” or “Is it okay if I give you some feedback?”

If you are regularly unwilling to give feedback, it may send the message that you either did not pay attention, or you didn’t care. The feedback can be positive— the most important thing is that it is specific.

Remember, direct cultures prioritize progress and development more than harmony. Feedback—especially negative feedback—is a primary way of helping a project progress. Direct culture communicators are usually grateful if you share honest feedback with them. If the feedback is negative, it’s helpful to include some suggestions for how they can change to improve.

 

This shows your coworker that you have their best interests—such as their success, and the success of the group!— in mind.

Indirect Rule 9: Feedback can be seen as criticism.

Provide feedback in a one-on-one setting. If you feel you must give feedback, start with praise, give your potentially negative feedback, and finish by praising again. 

 

Pose any constructive or negative feedback in the form of an open question (e.g: “Could you tell me how this data differs from previous years?” likely means, “This data looks wrong, and I disagree with your conclusions. Please explain.”) Rather than passing judgment, an open question can seem more exploratory, inviting discussion. It is key for people managers to be wary of how they give feedback.

Like disagreeing, indirect cultures tend to avoid feedback that could be considered negative. With each rule you break, you also break down your relationship with the individual and also with the group or team.

As always, the underlying purpose is to preserve the relationship not only with the person to whom you’re giving feedback, but also with the greater team. If you single out only one person with feedback, how will the rest of the team feel: relieved or ignored?

Direct Rule 10: When you don’t understand, ask questions to clarify the matter immediately.

When you don’t understand, respectfully interrupt the speaker to ask for clarification.

If you do not understand but allow the speaker to continue, the message will be lost. In direct cultures, allowing mutual understanding to fail is more likely to cause you to lose face than asking for understanding. In fact, interrupting to ask for clarification is a great way to show the speaker that you care about what they say!

To ensure that all communicators understand the message. Remember, mutual understanding is more important than group harmony. That means if you don’t understand, it’s okay if you politely insert yourself to clarify.

Indirect Rule 10: When you don’t understand, wait until that person has finished speaking or presenting before asking a question.

First, ask yourself whether or not the answer you seek has already been given. Remember, an indirect culture is one in which much of the communication goes unspoken, with an expectation for you to read between the lines. 

 

In cultures where the boss is afforded a lot of respect, for example, or in cultures where direct disagreement is avoided, it is often better to wait until after the meeting or conversation to ask for the clarification you need. 

 

If the explanation you receive is challenging to understand, spend time reflecting on what the speaker may actually be trying to tell you. Remember that they may be communicating in an indirect way for the sake of harmony, respect for your intelligence, or because they are disagreeing.

 

This may take some time for direct culture people to understand and apply.

With indirect culture, as you may have worked out, it is all about the relationship. Of course, you are supposed to do your job well, but a big part of your job is to build and maintain positive relationships.

 

This is true of every culture and every culture has its unique way. It is the role of the outsider to make an effort to learn and show flexibility so others will, hopefully, show you the same flexibility when you break a rule or two.

In workplaces where people don't share the same native language, it's normal and expected that misunderstandings will occur. The question is, when is the right time to get clarification? And how should you do it?

Direct Rule 1: It’s important to promote mutual understanding and progress.

Rather than speaking softly or implying a message without saying it, do your best to say what you mean directly. 

 

For example, a coworker asks about your availability to stay late on the following day. In direct cultures, it’s expected that you will say, “I’m sorry, but I’m unavailable,” “Unfortunately, I can’t,” or another kind of statement that makes your unavailability obvious. 

 

Even if you say something like, “That might be difficult…” your coworker will likely still believe it is possible to persuade you to stay late. 

In the interest of mutual understanding, you must speak clearly and thoroughly, even when some things may seem obvious or unnecessary to say. In the most extreme direct cultures (like America) there is nothing so obvious that it’s not worth saying.

By speaking indirectly, direct communicators may not understand what you’re talking about, or “pick up” your message. Your questions, requests, or responses may be misunderstood or missed completely.

 

Remember, in many direct cultures, if you don’t decline directly, you are silently agreeing. That means if you don’t explicitly decline, your conversation partner may  think you are agreeing. This is true in one-on-one conversations, and also in group meetings.

Direct cultures value mutual understanding and forward progress momentum more than group harmony. This means that direct communicators will almost never ‘beat around the bush’—instead, they say what they mean in a way that is obvious.

The purpose is to be considerate of others' time (the assumption is that a direct conversation is a faster one), to ensure that all parties understand each other and the topic at hand 100%, and to keep minds focused on the goal.  

Note!

There are some exceptions to this rule! Some direct cultures, like Australia, America and Canada shy away from giving negative feedback directly. If you have to give negative feedback, you can be softer or more indirect. 

However, other places—such as Germany, Holland and France—highly value direct negative feedback.

Indirect Rule 1: It’s important to be agreeable and to preserve harmony.

Observe by listening and getting a feel for the atmosphere in the room. Speak when you can add to the harmony, generally by agreeing. Silence is fine and sometimes most appropriate or preferred if you are new to the group or less senior than others.

People may think you are inappropriately judgemental or opinionated. If you continue with this behavior, you may be excluded from the group, either formally or informally.

To ensure harmony within the group. To build trust, especially if you are new or are less senior than others.

Special Consideration: Friendliness

In some cultures, friendliness is a sign that you would like to build a relationship. People of these cultures are usually fairly stoic until you have successfully built an authentic personal relationship with them. “Friendly” questions may appear to be presumptuous, overly-familiar, or performative. In other cultures, friendliness is an expected form of politeness. People of these cultures are usually comfortable sharing details about their lives to complete strangers.

So do you tell if someone is interested in a genuine relationship, or is simply being polite?

At work, this question may not matter. It’s in your best interest to develop personal relationships with your coworkers. This is true regardless of whether you are working in a task-based culture or a relationship-based culture. 

The reason is simple: once you have a personal relationship, it’s much easier to ask for forgiveness or clarity if a communication mistake is made down the line!

Special Consideration: Persuasion

Explaining the reasoning behind your conclusions is important for being a good communicator. The challenge is, different business environments have different preferences for the order. An excellent way of looking at this is the principle-first versus applications-first scale published by Dr. Erin Meyer in The Culture Map.

Principle-first persuaders prefer to understand the underlying thinking before hearing the conclusion. In these environments, listeners want to see the line of thinking before providing them with a recommendation or conclusion. Starting with the conclusion first implies that the listener either isn’t smart enough to follow along, or that you don’t actually have any good justification behind your conclusions. Some notable principle-first cultures are France, Italy, and Germany.

Application-first persuaders begin with the conclusion or recommended application, and then give the underlying thinking. This is very similar to Pyramid-style communication, which is often used in business schools. Start with the conclusion, which application-first persuaders find to be the most important thing. Spend time on the logic behind the recommendations as-needed. Application-first cultures often want presentations to “get to the point” as quickly as possible. It is not unusual to leave out the reasoning entirely. Notable application-first cultures are the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

The third type of persuasion type is holistic thinking. Holistic thinking is a pattern of explaining the context and surrounding influences before and addressing the topic at hand. Unlike the previous two patterns, which focus on a single specific relationship (reasoning to conclusion and conclusion to reasoning), holistic thinking strives to understand the influence of the background, and any connections that might be between the background and the object of focus.

This means that oftentimes, for example, holistic persuaders believe that American or European business leaders have a tendency to make decisions without carefully considering the broader ramifications. They may even believe application- or principle- persuaders to be rash, or too fast in their decision-making. Employees in holistic cultures often need to understand how the tasks of each individual fit together and contribute to a larger whole. Individual incentive plans often don’t work well in these contexts.

In comparison, application- or principle-persuaders may view holistic thinking as too slow and full of extraneous information. They prefer detailed, segmented information that allows them to focus on their own tasks.

How do I know if I’ve broken a rule?

When you’ve repeatedly broken an unwritten communication rule, you may notice the following behaviors in your colleagues or communication partners:

  • A sense that they are pulling away 
  • Not asking for your opinion
  • Leaving you out of conversations
  • Discussions going quiet or ending quickly when you approach
  • When you ask questions, colleagues saying things like, “It might be hard to understand,” or, “You might not understand…”
  • A general feeling of awkwardness

If you find yourself experiencing any of these behaviors regularly, ask a trusted colleague or supervisor for their advice, or how you can improve your communication skills.

What unwritten rules do you recommend?

The unwritten rules of both direct and indirect culture have their place. Indeed, these two examples act as extremes on either end of a scale. There are many variations of rules in between. There is no “best” communication style, only the style that’s most appropriate for the setting.

In the era of global business, figuring out which style is appropriate at work can be challenging.

Thankfully, there’s an easy rule of thumb: as linguistic and cultural diversity increases and shared history decreases, the more effective a direct communication style will be.

  • If your team is monocultural, then whichever communication style comes naturally is best.
  • If your team is mostly monocultural with one or two exceptions, then it’s probably best if those exceptions learn the unwritten rules of the broader group.
  • If your team is fifty-fifty, or a mixed bag of people from a variety of backgrounds, then a more direct approach to communication will be necessary.

This is why I focus on a more direct, explicit type of communication in our SpeakUp DNA program. Increased global business means that direct communication skills are more important than ever.

The reality is however, that the most skilled communicators will adjust their communication style between direct and indirect depending on who they are speaking with, and what kind of meeting it is. I am definitely not here to tell you that one communication style is better than the other. What I can say is that when there’s a higher likelihood of misunderstanding, direct communication tends to produce better results on average. 

Ideally, you will walk away from this guide having a better understanding of both direct and indirect communication. That way, you can choose which style is more appropriate for you.

But what does that mean to be direct? When I say, “be explicit,” how does that influence the way you speak and listen at work? Let’s look at what contemporary research has to say about four main categories of unwritten rules across different cultures.

What’s the best communication practice for me?

The best communication practice is the one you and your team can agree on!

In some cases, especially if your team is relying on long-term relationships between groups of people that are separated globally and don’t share a local context or culture at all, finding communication similarities is very challenging.

In these cases, consider meeting and together agreeing on which unwritten communication rules you’d like to use as a team. Place the unwritten rules in a document everyone can see publicly, and refer to it if you’re not sure the best way to approach a communication problem.

How to follow the rules automatically:

In this chapter, we reviewed the unwritten rules that govern business communication across cultures.

In the next five chapters, we’ll teach you five key skills that, with practice, will help you follow global business communication rules automatically.

See you there!

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