How indirect to be at work? Depends on the culture you are in

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In the course of normal conversation, people are sometimes direct (they say bluntly what’s on their mind) and other times indirect (they tactfully indicate what they mean without explicitly saying so). Sometimes people adopt a direct style and other times an indirect style without thinking much – it just happens automatically.

Research by Professor Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks at the University of Michigan suggests that being mindful about when you communicate directly and when indirectly can bring substantial benefits in cross-cultural interactions. In personal interactions, outside of work, using a mix of direct and indirect communication is suitable across different cultures. But when in a work context, things change: Asians (including Chinese and Koreans) communicate more indirectly in work contexts, whereas Americans community more directly.

What does this mean for you? If you are an Asian in an American workplace, you are likely to be better off stating what you think explicitly. Instead of saying, “Have you considered this other option?” just say, “I think this alternate option is significantly better.” If you are a Westerner in an Asian workplace, making suggestions and asking questions instead of strong assertions and demands would probably lead to smoother interactions.

So the next time you walk into your workplace, think about the culture you are in.


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