Direct or Indirect: Which communication style is better?

Growing up, I was not at all aware of my family’s directness in communicating about our needs and desires. It wasn’t until I made friends of other ethnicities, especially Asian friends, that my eyes began to open. Take that up 100 notches once I married Sandy, a Korean American.

Direct communication can be very helpful, given the context. And indirect communication can be equally helpful, given a different context. Let’s learn to assess the context, and then pick the kind of communication that serves those around us.

When we are eating with Sandy’s family, it is important to look around the table and see whose plate is getting empty. Others should offer seconds. In my family, if I want seconds and there is a little left on the serving dish, it is fine for me to take some.

Direct mindset: “I am still a little hungry. There is still some food left on the serving dish. I am going to help myself to some more.”
Indirect mindset: “Let me look around the table at other people’s plates. Whose plate is getting empty? I am going to offer them seconds. Someone will notice that my plate is getting empty, and they will offer me seconds.”

Direct mindset: “I’m going to grab a burger with my friend. I will announce this to my wife. If she wants a burger, she will ask me to get her one also.”
Indirect mindset: “Doug knows me and is aware of my needs and desires, just like I am aware of his. He knows that food is one of my love languages. Of course he will bring me home a burger. I don’t need to ask.”

Direct mindset: “I know what I would like to do today. It is up to me to tell others what my needs are.”
Indirect mindset: “I want to listen to my friends’ needs so that my desires do not overshadow theirs. Then together we can figure out what the best option is for lunch.”

Direct mindset: “It is important that I tell my team exactly where I stand on the issues we are discussing. I owe it to them to be clear about how on board I am.”
Indirect mindset: “I have some concerns about the things we are discussing, but I will wait to be called upon because I do not want to be disrespectful to our leader.”

I used to be confused by indirect communication. Instead of seeking to understand and empathize, I would use therapeutic language to explain why I was right and they were wrong. I would say, “I cannot be expected to read people’s minds. If they don’t say what they want, that is not my problem. Everyone is responsible to articulate their own needs.”

Jesus has humbled me since then. Love is more important to me than being right, on my good days.

Today I am grateful for the choice to be direct or indirect about my feelings, my needs, or my opinions, depending with whom I’m talking. I enjoy being able to be understated if I wish, or ask questions instead of just offering my opinion. And yet there are times when I am served by being direct and clear. I value both.

Within different ethnic groups, there are varying levels of direct and indirect communication. There are always individual exceptions to these trends. You can probably think of many. Also, within different regions of the U.S., the amount of directness (or what topics we are direct about) varies. The East Coast is different from the Midwest which is different from the South, etc.

When I  was growing up, I was encouraged to be direct about stating my needs, my preferences, and my desires. We practiced this regularly at the dinner table and in family meetings. But we were not direct about some of our deeper feelings. We did not talk about our sadness, our regrets, our loneliness, nor any sense of depression. (How about for you? What are you comfortable being direct about? And which topics do you prefer indirect or silent communication?)


(Thanks to Pat Li-Barbour, my collaborator for this post.)

9 thoughts on “Direct or Indirect: Which communication style is better?

  1. I notice that (polite midwestern) white folks are usually direct about some things, and very indirect about race. Although that seems to have fundamentally changed this election cycle.


  2. Grateful for this, Doug. Whenever I have heard white friends talk about indirect communication, it was always something I (we from more indirect cultures) had to get over, and something that our white friends had to suffer through. Grateful for the affirmation and reflection on your journey.


  3. Yes! yes yes!
    As a Japanese-American women married to a White man, this is probably one of the biggest issues in our relationship that we started having to deal with when we started dating. In the Japanese culture it is considered rude to say exactly what you want, which creates interesting dynamics in a relationship with a white American. We’ve had to both learn to come halfway. I’ve learned to be more direct at times and my husband has learned to read more indirect cues as well as to give me more space and ask me more questions.


  4. I appreciated this blog. I can resonate with some as an Asian-American and being married to a Caucasian. I think some of direct and indirectness has also to do with the level of comfort on the topic that is being addressed. For example, I have noticed that in general, Asians have a hard time asking for a favor/help and ask in an indirect manner–almost like a suggestion. Whites have hard time asking directly about things that they perceive to be personal or private matters, while as some Asians don’t count it as being very private or personal. I also wonder how gender differences also add to the complexity of direct and indirect communication. Communication takes a lot of work for sure!


  5. Hi Rebecca, These are some excellent thoughts!
    1. Asking for favors: Do you mean that you ask, “Hey maybe we could do this together?” And I might say, “Could I please get your help with this?” Or how do you ask for help?
    2. Private Matters: I know that my mother-in-law is free to comment on my or Sandy’s appearance. I might consider such directness to be impolite. Do you think that is cultural?
    3. And with gender, I imagine women are more direct about some topics and less direct about others, and visa versa? Any idea what those might be? Expressing feelings?


    1. 1. Asking for favor:
      Indirect: “Do you think we need more ice?” Response: “Oh, let me go get it for you. OR SILENCE (which usually means no)”
      Direct: “Can YOU please go get more ice?”
      Or my husband’s complaint is that I would ask: “Do you think we should clean the garage?” which in his mind, I am trying to say, “Can you please clean the garage?” Usually, he is correct. I am not planning to clean the garage because it is not in my “domain” of division of labor. 🙂 But, I ask indirectly which drives him crazy sometimes.

      2. Yes, but doesn’t being white and non-white have to do with cultural differences too? It’s hard to completely separate ethnicity from culture.

      3. I need to think about this one more, but I do think there is difference in women and men in the degree of directness and indirectness when we are together in one gender group or in mixed settings. But, I am also thinking mostly from an Asian-American context. I think in general, men are more direct about giving their opinions, compared to women.


  6. Here are some helpful comments from a friend who private messaged me. she wishes to remain anonymous.

    I dislike public fb conversations, but wanted to say how much I liked your indirect communication post. Having lived with cross-cultural dynamics for so many years now I find most cultural commentary kind of dull and alienating. I actually came across your book while cleaning a bookcase yesterday and thought, “I really should read this sometime.” (But notice, it did NOT go into the Goodwill pile.) My aversion is not because such commentary isn’t somewhat true and helpful, but because it almost always way oversimplifies. The piece you just posted, on the other hand, lets the dynamic stand in all its richness and complexity and offers a great model for growth. I’d love to see similar reflections on power distance, conflict styles and getting to know people (e.g. American norm of asking lots of personal questions, assuming trust too early.) These three are my big daily challenges, both in navigating my own relationships and in pastoring others. Another one would be the difference between behaviors rooted in a person’s culture vs. behaviors that are rooted in a person’s experience of navigating an unfamiliar cultural context. I think we mix these up all the time. We (majority culture people) are quick to cry “culture” when an Asian or Latin American or female team member is quiet in a group discussion, especially a conflictual one. But if you’ve ever visited China or tried to negotiate a purchase price for your car with a Guatemalan or watched a Korean drama you know that loud and forceful arguing is as present in high power difference cultures as it is ours. I for sure get quiet when I’m the only woman on an all-male team, but that’s not actually who I am either culturally or by personality. Keep up the good work.


  7. Thanks Doug. I was given the nickname of “Direct Diane” when dating a man from Britain. Reading this blog has reminded me I need to continue to be more generous with others.. listening more , holding off on assumptions, inquiring.. before feeling that I know what anyone even within my culture is communicating. Even more-so cross-culturally.


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