Bless your heart! Do you need me to be direct or indirect?

by | May 18, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

What’s your communication style: direct or indirect? And how does it affect you on the job and in your community?

This was one of the lively discussion topics in the intercultural training program I recently facilitated for expat employees moving to Charleston for their temporary work assignment.  We covered eight cultural dimensions with communication being the most complex.

The employees will be here about two to three years. They already speak English well. Their global employer uses a direct communication style, which is common in their home countries too as well as in the United States.

However, the way Americans communicate can be tricky, especially in a historic town like Charleston, I explained. Be prepared for a number of curve balls that could trip you.

For example, we Americans like to use sports analogies (Guilty!), idioms, jargon and abbreviations, especially TLAs (three-letter acronyms). These may not easily translate, be understood or used in other countries’ cultures.

And, especially at work, we often have a sense of urgency. So we can be so brief and concise that we’ll inadvertently leave out important information.

Also confusing, we may even provide inaccurate information, such as the wrong dates and times, due to our speed, reliance on auto-correct and sloppy proofreading.

For example, consider “wordos” – real words that pass spellcheck but are nonsensical in their context when read carefully. “Meeting invoice” should be “meeting invite;” “couch” should be  “coach” and the simple “he” was meant to be “the.”

(My two recent favorite wordos are “touch choices” from the Wall Street Journal and “an herb-roasted organic airline chicken breast” for $48 from a trendy Palm Beach restaurant. The right words are probably “tough” and “artisanal” respectively.)

However, when direct communicators are playing their “A” game (Guilty again!), they mean what they say. A “yes” is a “yes” and a “no” is a “no”. They also provide an appropriate amount of information in a straightforward manner. Others can read or listen and grasp the message quickly.

As for the indirect communication style, which is more common in the Deep South, messages can be subtle and tactful, delivered with extensive details, background information, and levels of “yes.” There’s often a focus on politeness to maintain harmony. This avoids potential conflicts and other unpleasantries or embarrassments.

To be an effective sender and receiver of messages, you need to be aware of these differences and adapt to them. We practiced delivering feedback to those who prefer direct communication versus those who are more indirect.

We also reviewed how successful communicators — whether direct, indirect or a mix — use more than words to get their messages across. Consider the power of gestures and other non-verbal cues, such as body language, tone of voice, pace, and even silence. The latter can signify respect, evasion, disagreement or something else.

Just two days after the intercultural training program ended, I received a letter from a Charleston-based non-profit. The letter was a textbook example of how hard it is to communicate effectively to a mixed group of  direct and indirect styles.

From my quick scan, the letter was an appeal to those who prefer indirect communication. Consider these two clues: 1) subtle messages and 2) buried call to action.

The next to the last paragraph started as follows: “This letter is our way to remind you that it is time to renew your membership.” 

This “call to action” with its roundabout phrasing was buried under three detailed paragraphs describing how the organization has been dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic the past 14 months.

The renewal actions expected from the reader/member were convoluted too. The renewal steps, which were not explicit, were:

  1. Write a check or provide a credit card number on the enclosed payment form.
  2. Insert the form (and possible check) into the enclosed envelope.
  3. Affix a first-class stamp on the envelope.
  4. Mail the envelope.

Even though it’s 2021, there was no option to pay online.

As we say in the South, “Bless your heart!”

It took me a while to learn about this wonderful all-purpose phrase that you can interpret any way you want but is probably an insult. However, I made sure to introduce it to the expats so they’ll be prepared. How’s that for a combo of direct and indirect communication?!?!



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