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.)

Beyond Colorblind: Seeing People Clearly

Being colorblind is a “virtue” that many people say they aspire toward today. They compare it to how America used to be “flat-out-racist.” Today we are colorblind and enlightened. Indeed it is a major improvement over slavery and Jim Crow. The problem with being colorblind is that while it is a good starting point, it is a poor destination. On the one hand, it is crucial as followers of Jesus that we examine the biases of our hearts, as we pointed out in our “Barnacles” post. But being colorblind will not get us to where God is trying to take us, to become God’s cross-cultural people, full of compassion, humility, courage, and actually seeing people for who they are.

When my wife, Sandy, was a freshman in college, it was a white friend who first asked her about her experience of being Korean-American. This white friend, Alison Siewert, was not trying to just accept Sandy and be colorblind. Instead she looked deeper into Sandy’s life, to see who she was under the surface, to discover more fully what God was doing in her. Who was Sandy going to become in Christ as a redeemed Korean-American woman?

It reminds me of a story in the Gospel of Mark of a man learning to see clearly. In Mark 8:23, Jesus heals a blind man, but only partly. After the first round of healing, the man says, “I see people, but they are like trees walking.” Jesus goes another round with him, and then the man “looks intently.” Jesus’ power, combined with the man “looking intently” does open his eyes. He sees the world clearly for the first time. In my opinion, aiming to be colorblind is like seeing people vaguely, like trees walking. Being colorblind means you see, but you see vaguely, not clearly. It is not really looking deeply who they are created to be. Alison did not just accept Sandy, but she looked intently into her life, asking great questions about who she is and how her family raised her. Sandy was not some diversity project…Alison was a good friend, practicing compassion, fascinated with Sandy and her story, which God used as a turning point in Sandy’s growth.

What is beneath the surface in this person’s life, their family, their culture. What is the beauty and the pain they carry within. How are they made in the image of God, and what is God doing in their life today?

I’m a better friend when I am asking these questions. This week I was talking with Megan Krischke,

Doug and Megan
Doug and Megan

a multiracial friend of mine, partly Native-American. She told me the story of when she took a tour of a Native-American college, Haskell Indian Nations University. At the end of the tour, she stopped to pray and ask God what he was doing on campus. She saw an image of a 6 year-old Native boy. That little boy stayed with her for weeks…every time she prayed, he was there at her side. Megan asked me if I thought he was a ghost. I do not have any personal experience with a vision like this. Do you? (Sometimes we white people can keep stories like this at arm’s distance because it is not part of our experience, but if we choose to engage with them, such stories can be used by God to change us.) Because I am friends with Megan, I am learning to share her heart for Haskell Indian Nations University. I am learning to look intently into Megan’s life, to care about her story and her people, and to wonder out loud with her about why God might have allowed her to see an enduring vision of a young Native boy. If I am not friends with Megan, and if I am not looking intently into her life (moving beyond colorblind), I just live in my little comfort bubble. I want to blink and see the world through her eyes. Jesus is teaching me learning to pay attention to my Native-American friends and their world. God is using these friends to make my life richer.

How about as a parent…how can I help my family move beyond being colorblind? Last week my daughter, Stephanie, brought over 4 friends who happened to all be Korean-American. Striking up a conversation, I said, “There are some differences between Korean culture and white culture. Do you notice any?” They shook their heads. Stephanie and four friends“When you want my attention, you say, ‘Hey Stephanie’s Dad.’ In my culture, you would say, ‘Hey Mr. Schaupp’ or ‘Mr. Doug’ or just ‘Doug.’ No one else around me says, ‘Hey Stephanie’s Dad’ except Stephanie’s Korean-American friends.” They all giggled. I continued, “When you want to talk about an event coming up in a few weeks, you say, ‘The party will be next-next Friday.’ We say, ‘The party will be two Friday’s from now.’ We white people don’t use the phrase, ‘next-next Friday.’” Again they giggled. One girl said, “We did not even know we say those things. But now we see it.” This is a simple example, but these girls are made in the image of God. They, like all of us, have distinct cultural values woven into the fabric of their lives. It is good for me to look deeper into their lives and how God has wired them.

How practically can we grow into people who look intently?
Be like Alison. Be a good friend. Make it a priority to have friends with different backgrounds from yourself. In some parts of the U.S., this requires a lot more effort and intentionality. Spend time with your friend in different contexts. Get into their world.
Ask good questions. Be curious. Be a learner. Not because they are your diversity project. Not because they will explain to you why so many Black people are angry today. Look beneath the surface.
Read. I love to read well-written books about Korean history. It is such a rich and fascinating journey through the centuries. That helps me understand who my kids are becoming.

German School and changing white culture

I’ve been thinking about white culture.  Joe Ho helped us with his observations about white culture, and communicating effectively within white culture on campus.  If you still doubt white people have a specific culture, why not go see My Big Fat Greek Wedding again just to think about the two families coming together, or remember about all the assumptions white people have together around how we do Thanksgiving, or how we do Christmas, or other major cultural events. Everybody has a culture, including white Americans.

Certainly, Doug and I both think that white culture has aspects which are positive and powerful. One of the core values of this blog is to be appreciative, looking for positive aspects to build on. White people tend to have a “can do” spirit, a sense of our own agency, a belief that things can change for the better, for example.

But white culture also has toxic, racist aspects. Black students at the university in my home city are speaking out about our negative effect on them, and their wellbeing. I share this “Being Black at UW” video to bear witness to the toxic aspects of white culture in my hometown.  Please spend two minutes watching it.

So because of this, and other situations like it, we need to change white culture. We need to learn to notice how the Holy Spirit is active in changing culture, and participate with what God is already doing. We can be in our own culture, be prayerful, be connected to white people, and call our friends and family and colleagues to a higher, better, more Godly standard.

How on earth do I change my culture? you might ask.

Here’s an example of this going badly. In Wisconsin, where I live, a hundred years ago there were publicly funded German language and dual language (German-English) schools. We had whole towns that spoke only German.   Our Wisconsin white American culture changed, because of the influence of English American immigrants, and the xenophobia between the two world wars. We burned German language books and closed schools.  So we all changed, in Wisconsin, a lot because of the hatred and fear of Germans between the two wars. Now most of our books and newspapers and blogs and schools are English based, and Muller brewery in Milwaukee has become Miller.  (My computer won’t let me put the umlaut over the “u” in Muller.) Sadly, part of the reason some white people are not aware of our own culture is because of these kinds of losses. My own paternal grandmother, who was German, never spoke German to me or in my presence. She and her sister erased most of my connection with German American culture.

But culture change can be redemptive as well. Last week, two guys came to visit me at church. They are in charge of a German language school and they were looking for a place to hold classes. Come to find out, they teach German language and culture to adults and kids of all ages. They are attempting to recover German culture in Wisconsin – in our last census, 44% of Wisconsinites reported German heritage and we have a lot of fun German traditions.  Culture changes, both for the negative and the positive. Culture is a real but fluid phenomenon.

In Germany itself, culture was intentionally changed in an attempt to become less anti-semitic, and heal from the Holocaust. After World War 11, the German people completely overhauled their education system in a concerted attempt to de-nazify and change their culture.

So the question remains, what will we do, to identity, confront and change the toxic effects of white culture? Here are seven simple ideas for adults and children:

  1. educate yourself and your children … find out who you are
  2. guard your own tongue (against hate speech and microagressions)… say kind, good things
  3. speak up against hate speech and unjust situations (be a witness, not a bystander)
  4. don’t take over (we white people, and especially white men, like to solve problems)… let’s avoid fixing and learn to be partners.
  5. leave space for the victim (of racism) to find his or her own voice, and validate it… this may mean, join the protest
  6. when the law comes (police, lawyers, teachers, principals)… stay.
  7. be present, be a witness, be a friend

Reaching More White People

Interview with Joe Ho, National Director of Asian American Ministries, IVCF

Doug: As an Asian American, you are an unusual person to advocate for reaching and developing more white people.  How has this burden from God grown in your life?

Joe: Looking back at my ministry in Virginia, I noted that not only were we beginning to reach more Asian American students, but we were reaching large numbers of white students as well. (In the rest of InterVarsity, we had been plateaued or declining in reaching more white people.) So I thought I might have something to say about this. For the past decade, I have not apologized for intentionally reaching more Asian Americans, and today I am not apologizing for helping us intentionally reach more white people in the name and love of Jesus.

Doug: For many of us white Christians, as we think about growing in our redeemed identities in Christ, we do not think missionally about this.  How do you approach this subject?

Joe: It is easier for me as an Asian American to talk about the good values of white culture, than for white people to talk about the good things in your own culture. It is wise to say affirming things about other people’s cultures. Whiteness has been defined by the problem, because as look back a century or two, its origin was oppressive. This makes affirming whiteness complicated today. Prophetic critique best comes from within each respective ethnic group. Take my people for example. As a Han Chinese descendent, we did the same thing in China. Han Chinese are guilty of many of the same oppressive actions. Is being Han Chinese redeemable by Jesus? I believe so. If Jesus can redeem and affirm my ethnic heritage, then being white can also be redeemed.

I have a missional lens on all of life, I think like a missionary toward all people groups. Some people think that the racial injustices of white Americans over the past several hundred years mean that we should not think about reaching white people as a missiological category. I disagree. If sin disqualifies us from being the object of God’s redeeming love, then all individuals and all people groups are out. Is there there is a type or degree of sin that disqualifies a from God’s love, and His invitation to repent and believe? We would say “no” with respect to individuals, so I think we have to say “no” with respect to groups as well.

Western Imperialism is unique in its global reach. Looking back at history, the rise of any “great” empire is fueled by the lie of Babel. (Genesis 11). We believe that we can make a great name for ourselves. We believe that we are the center of the story, no matter what the expense upon others. The sin of Bable has always been part of human history. Tragically, the European expression of Babel happened at a time where technology and transportation allowed global empire. White imperialism is not worse in its insidiousness, but rather in its scope.

Doug: In your excellent blog posts (re-posted below in full), you list 10 important values that you see in white culture.  Please give us an example of ministries using one of these values and how that helps them reach more white people.

Joe: #9 is HAVING FUN. When I came from an Asian American church, we did have fun. But when we do God stuff, that is serious. When I joined InterVarsity as a freshman, we sang a worship song and then we sang a secular song from the radio. Back to worship, back to secular. I was offended. I wanted to tell them, “Worship is serious. Don’t mess with that.” I have seen retreats that serve a lot of white people, and they do fun really well. For example, Young Life has a theology of fun, life, freedom. To reach White college students, I had to push the boundaries of how much levity and fun I would bring into the center of the ministry. Of course, white people are not the only people who value fun. But without excelling at “fun,” it will be challenging to draw lots of mainstream white young people.

Top 10 characteristics of white students

[Continued from last post… used with permission from Joe Ho, who works with students of every race and many cultures.]

Characteristic #1. To be White is to have choices. Everyone has choices, but the number of available choices, and being the focus of most marketing in America, makes choice perhaps the fundamental reality in White student experience. White students are used to people competing for them. So, if you want White students to come to your Large Group or chapter retreat, it must offer something that is better (in value, quality, “customer service,” etc.) than any other option available. We may resent this, but we cannot ignore it.

Characteristic #2. Grown-ups make decisions for themselves. In White culture, self-determination is a key standard of maturity, perhaps the standard of maturity. To be given independence is to be treated as an adult. Mature White students respond when they can “opt in” for themselves, and learn/decide for themselves. This is one attraction to inductive Bible study. If you are working with White leaders, you need give them some autonomy. The critical flip side is that you also hold them fully accountable to their commitments and to the outcome of their autonomous choices. If you coddle students, you will get the immature ones. This reality (and the one that follows) might stretch you if you come from a culture that defers to authority.

Characteristic #3. I call my pastor by her first name. White culture places relatively low value on positional authority. In more technical language, this is called “low power distance,” or “non-hierarchical.” In social settings like retreat free time or NSO, it can build trust to act as a peer and downplay the “authority” aspect of your role. You will even have to downplay your positional spiritual authority in those setting, even in discipling settings. (This is the opposite of what you’d do in most other ethnic settings.) With leaders, you must tolerate and even affirming dissent, debate, and give-and-take. It does not mean they must have their way, but they must have their say.

Characteristic #4. Newer is better, bigger is better. In the White western worldview, there is always a place beyond the horizon that promises more than the status quo. You can appeal to this expansionist spirit in White culture by casting entrepreneurial vision, and by showing how InterVarsity is doing things that are unique, innovative, and/or breaking new ground. Many of the best missional Christians or pre-missional Christians will opt out if you lack this ethos. White people can be your best friends when planting – even if the plant is non-White!

Characteristic #5. “What works” equals “what’s right.” Being pragmatic and solution-focused is valued in White culture. When discussing controversial issues, be sure to ground your perspective in the bottom line and how things actually apply in real life. When making difficult or unpopular decisions, say, to stay on mission, pragmatism can be your best friend if you create short term wins. Warning: An appeal to pragmatism can backfire if you say it will work and do not show that it works.

Characteristic #6. I think therefore I am. All good communication appeals to both head and heart, intellect and passion. But you can get away with lower passion with White students if your conceptual content is strong. As in many “low context” cultures, be sure that in communication you make good use of both good quality and quantity of thought. Quote books and experts. Use logical outlines. Things you say should be just as good if it were written and read.

Charactertic #7. Fair is fair. This is another “low context culture” characteristic. White students have a strong belief in absolute rules that should apply equally to everyone.  When making decisions, say, in leadership selection or scholarship allocation, be careful to strive for consistency and limit exceptions based on circumstance. This means you will have to think through allocation of power and resources very carefully to be sure they apply to as many possible situations as possible.

Characteristic #8. Waste not, want not. In White culture, wasting time, energy or resources is considered near to sin (or actual sin). Meetings and communication need to be brief and straightforward – often painfully brief and straightforward to people from other cultures. Even worship needs to be time bounded and move along briskly. When you ask students to spend money, it must be seen as returning value. (This doesn’t mean that things need to be cheap. They need to be “worth it,” which in some cases costs more. See characteristic #1.)

Characteristic #9. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it. Another near moral imperative is that life should be fun. Levity needs to be sprinkled in generously in all venues, especially in new environments like NSO. This can reach levels that can appear silly or even irreverent from other cultural perspectives, but it is very important. A gifted White female staff once trained freshmen male SG leaders by saying, “Freshman guys are stupid. So to reach them you have to do stupid things.”

Characteristic #10. Competition. Competition is a key way of building community and fostering engagement. But for White men in particular, you have to balance their love for competition with the potential shame of appearing incompetent. Play sports and games, but be sure to include invented or obscure forms of competition where everyone is a novice. Also, if there’s no prize or penalty, it’s not a competition.

(These are posted with permission, from Joe Ho, Asian American cross-cultural minister to white students.  He writes, “As our region’s first Asian American campus staff, I had worked at ways to attract and develop Asian American students, and we had built a multiethnic chapter with no majority ethnic group in the heart of the American South. But it seemed to cost our ability to reach White students. When I took the ministry director position in rural Virginia, I knew I was going as a cross-cultural missionary.

I am NOT saying “all White students are like this.” As a matter of fact, almost no individual White student will have all ten characteristics.  I‘m also not saying that other cultures have these characteristics too. Many of them do.  I AM saying that these characteristics derive from deeply held values in White culture, and cannot consistently be ignored without presenting a barrier to reaching White students, especially high-identity White students.”

Joe is a busy guy, who grew his student group 804, 825, 930, 1076, 1096, 1184, 1265 during seven years in Virginia.

We think we should listen and learn from his observations about white culture.