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.”
ARTICULATING MY PREFERENCES
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.)