Are You Too Direct? Giving Culturally Appropriate Feedback


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A client of mine once came to me after a training class in tears. She asked to speak to me in private after the other participants had left. I escorted her to a chair, gave her a tissue and asked what was wrong.

“It’s my boss, ” she said. “He is Taiwanese and won’t listen to me at all. I’m in charge of making sure our products and processes meet federal regulations. So I go in and I tell him, ‘OSHA won’t approve this. We need to change it. ’ He just stays calm and ignores all my suggestions. I’m from New Jersey and we tell it like it is. My boss is just too stubborn to hear me. I have a feeling it has something to do with this indirect communication thing you talked about in class. ”

I listened to her story, nodding empathetically. At last I asked her, “What is your objective? What are you trying to accomplish when you meet with your boss?” She replied that compliance with regulations topped the list, after all that was a legal issue.

I said, “What if I told you that your boss is listening to you, but that your direct and somewhat confrontational style is causing him to lose face? What if you could just flex your style a little to meet your objective?”

She cracked a smile and said, “I thought I had toned my directness down. I guess it wasn’t enough. ” We began to work together on a new approach, one in which my client could still state her case but not cause conflict with her boss.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say to me, “Being indirect is dishonest. I like to call a spade a spade and be straight with people. ”

I understand their frustration, but what they are experiencing is a common communication gap that can be bridged. In large parts of the world, key global players like India, Japan, Korea and China, value a more indirect style of communication. Why? Not to be “dishonest” or “beat around the bush” but to preserve harmony and give face.

This indirect style of communication is characterized by a non-confrontational demeanor, modesty, use of non-verbal cues and verbal hints. The main point of the message may not be in what is said, but rather what is not said.

People from cultures who prefer a more direct style such as the U. S. , Germany and Switzerland often struggle to give feedback that does not cause loss of face for citizens of more indirect cultures.

But the skill is worth acquiring. In this day and age, globalization will put you in touch with people from places like India and China, whether you seek them out or not. The art of giving indirect feedback provides you with an increased communication repertoire, a higher level of diplomacy and a higher likelihood for success in negotiations.

Why should you put in the effort to learn this skill? When someone from an indirect culture loses face, they often shut down and shut doors, and in business that translates to lost revenue.

People ask me, “If I prefer a direct style, how do I learn something so counter to my preference?”

-First, start small. Take some time to observe how direct you are relative to the other party. For example, I have heard folks from the Southern U. S. say they thought they were indirect until they met someone from Japan!

-Emphasize building relationships; use private meetings and time outside of work to ask about a person’s aspirations and opinions.

-Ask third parties to convey delicate information; this is a common technique among indirect cultures.

-Give clear examples and instructions in advance to reduce the chance of mistakes that would be criticized later; try to avoid direct criticism and emphasize that even wrong answers have merit.

-Tell a story about when you made a similar mistake.

-Try to avoid saying “no” directly by using open phrases such as “interesting idea” or “that is being considered. ”

-Present your key message in several different ways and confirm understanding.

-Be patient – your colleagues might become more direct over time but if they do, they will take small steps.

-Try to maintain politeness and emotional control whenever possible.

Remember there are exceptions to every rule. People from indirect cultures can often be very direct about certain topics.

If you can learn the art of giving indirect feedback, you are much more likely to feel comfortable in this new global environment knowing you have a fuller toolbox of communication styles. You don’t have to change yourself, just add on new skills and make yourself more valuable.

© Vicki Flier 2007 All Rights Reserved

Vicki Flier is the USA-born president of Highroad Presentations. Visit her website at She helps her clients, primarily corporations and educators close their cultural gaps and reach the next level. Her programs include intercultural communication, multicultural team building and international business skills. She is a recent recipient of Kennesaw State University’s Instructor of the Year Award for International Programs. Previously, in her home of Atlanta, Georgia, Vicki supervised and conducted training for international and domestic Distribution and Manufacturing for Immucor, Inc. , a worldwide blood bank automation company with affiliates throughout Europe. In the past, Vicki has lived and/or worked in Nepal, China, Germany, India and Thailand. She has traveled in several countries including Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, England, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Mexico and Panama. Her clients include United Parcel Service (UPS), The Home Depot, Prudential Financial and Intercontinental Hotels Group.


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