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Why you are not Succeeding in a Foreign Country

I was very surprised and maybe somewhat shocked recently when I was told I should not be offended by something that was said to my husband when I shared to a friend something I had observed. Why was I surprised? Well, I was not offended in any kind of way. Why did the person think I was offended? Because the person thought I had been implying my discontent when I had merely stated what I had observed.

What happened here? This is a simple but typical example of communication problems between direct and indirect cultures. Me, being from Europe simply said what I noticed - nothing more, nothing less (direct communication style). My friend on the other hand, being from an Asian country, thought I had been implying that I did not like what had been said to my husband. This would be considered a typical indirect communication style when you are expected to read between the lines -something that is not always easy for someone from the West.

After being out here in Asia, being married to an Asian and thinking I got the hang of it, I obviously still have not. I continue to make mistakes or assume (definitely the wrong approach!) my in-laws and friends know me by now and know I just mean what I say - nothing more, nothing less.

Verbal communication

So what do we mean when we say some cultures, typically the Western culture is more 'direct' than other cultures, for example Asian cultures? Why are Western countries often considered rude and East Asian countries considered shy? Is this another stereotype or is there something more to it? Let us take a general look at how we can differentiate between cultures and how they communicate.

Direct Communication (or Low-Context Cultures)

When we say that someone is a 'direct' person, it basically means “they mean what they say”. The actual verbal message is the exact meaning of the thought or whatever it is that wants to be communicated. So, for example, if I say “You are fat”, even if it’s not a nice thing to say, it is exactly how I mean it. In direct cultures, we speak our mind and prefer face-to-face communication. This also means that we are not keen on having a third party involved if an issue or a problem arises.

For these reasons, for someone who is not used to this form of communication, it can be perceived as going overboard and being rude. You will find that cultures that are more direct in their approach of conveying thoughts are regarded as a ‘low-context’ culture. This means that you do not need much understanding of the given context to understand what is going on or what a person is saying. Thus, the context is ‘low’. People rely heavily on words to convey meaning in communication.

In the same way, low-context cultures tend to be more emotionally expressive. Emotions can indicate the importance of a matter. People belonging to these cultures believe that showing your emotions and expressing your feelings build trust and credibility.

For that reason, it is no surprise that I am often told that I am such an emotional person and people sometimes do not know how to talk to me here in the Philippines as they may be "afraid" of how I react. Is this a bad thing? No, it is just different as people in Asia (generally and comparatively speaking!) are simply not used to people being expressive with what they really think and displaying their happiness, frustration, discontent so openly. And I have been told by Asian students before that the first time they observed this with Western people they were shocked as they simply did not know how to behave in that situation. It is just different - it does not mean that either style is better or worse.

Indirect Communication (or High-Context Cultures)

A person who is indirect on the other hand, may not verbally say what he or she means but assumes you can understand their meaning from the given context. It is likely they will talk around the actual matter and may use vague and ambiguous language. When it comes to problem solving, they prefer to have a third party involved or will avoid the problem altogether and behave as if everything is alright. Cultures which use this kind of approach to communication are regarded as ‘high-context’ cultures. It is from the given context (body language, situation, phrases) that you must understand what is actually meant. People rely heavily on non-verbal and situational subtle cues in communication.

Now, for the direct communicator this can come across as deceiving as they are not used to this kind of communication style. It can also seem somewhat burdening and frustrating as for many direct communicators they feel they need to talk about the issue, vent and ‘get it out’. This is also a problem as this approach, when applied to a high-context culture, can cause offense, misunderstanding and a break in the relationship.