I’ve been thinking a lot recently about indirectness, especially in communication. Having worked in many Asian American and cross-cultural settings over the past two decades, I frequently hear people say that “Asians can be very indirect.”
While I’ve experienced some of this first-hand, I never knew what to really do after that statement. So “Asians are indirect.” Now what? What should I do with that, as an Asian or Asian American? What would I do with that if I were a Caucasian seeking to working with Asian Americans? Should I try to be indirect too?
I’ve noticed that in many cross-cultural conversations, the conversation stops at the point of acknowledging that there are cultural differences ‒ for instance, in “Eastern versus Western styles of leadership” charts. Or there is a “good” or “bad” label slapped on a quality like “directness” or “indirectness.”
What if we talked about both the good and bad? What if there were times when indirectness can be good, and times when it can be bad?
Here are some preliminary thoughts on that:
Indirectness is good when people use it to avoid shaming people unnecessarily.
For instance, let’s say that someone in an organization made a very embarrassing mistake in their work. It would be helpful for their boss or teammate to pull them aside and check in with them about it rather than directly speak about the mistake in a group or company-wide setting.
Indirectness is bad when people use it to avoid a face-to-face conversation.
However, it wouldn’t be good to be so indirect that nobody ever built up the courage to talk to this person about their mistake ‒ to help them grow from it and to offer support in that process. It’s not good when leaders avoid uncomfortable but necessary conversations such as when a co-worker or family member is acting abusively or in a manipulative manner and needs to be confronted. It’s hard for me to imagine justifying that by saying, “I can’t do that, because I’m just indirect!”
Here’s another thought:
Indirectness is good when people use it to gather consensus to make a decision.
For instance, a good leader might ask indirect questions to gather information and data from his or her team instead of bulldozing forward with a plan.
Indirectness is bad when people use it to justify a lack of focus and decisiveness.
However, if they never make a decision because they get lost in trying to please everybody, perhaps they are not being “direct” enough.
In any case, these are some first thoughts on the topic. If you have anything to add based on your own observations, let me know!