Indirect vs Direct Communication

I touched on this a bit in the post on power distance– while it *seems* like communication is often in a format that seems indirect to Americans, and Americans seem blunt and tactless to those in most Asian cultures- that doesn’t really mean what we think it means all the time. Some things are indirect, others, not so much. Partially this is reallya difference between cultures in what it is acceptable to ask or talk about and what isn’t.

It’s perfectly acceptable to comment about people’s weight in most Asian cultures, even to calling somebody fat. It’s okay to ask a woman’s age even if you hardly know her (for the record, I don’t mind this question at all, I think it’s silly that it bothers Americans. But it is not a question I would often be asked in the US, and I am asked it by the second meeting with most Filipinos). It’s okay to ask people how much they paid for just about anything, how much they spend on rent, what their utility bills are, etc, etc. Apparently, this one gets asked a lot and kind of exasperates Americans. I know I am tired of it, and find it hard not to be irritated. The reason I surmise that it is a common question with a common reaction due to cultural clashes is that one of the earliest phrases our language teacher taught us was a vague answer for this question- basically, something that means ‘so so’ or ‘about average,’ and this is what you say when you don’t want to answer. I have been sitting in my living room with an adult who went around the room asking me how much I paid for everything in the room. I’ve also been told by a lady from church that my way of cooking potatoes consumes too much gas and just watching me make the potatoes she was already tired of it, and I should not do that again. I think this was a bit different, though, because she is an older lady, so she has more freedom to tell me what she thinks, and I know she had only kind intentions and did not offend me in the least. Most of the questions don’t offend me, and even when the ‘how much did you pay for that’ question gets asked and I am irked, I know it’s a cultural issue.
Our son was regularly gawked at- I mean, people stopped in their tracks and stared, jaws dropped. Sometimes they took pictures. Often they asked to take selfies with him. Once a guy followed him around a museum, taking obvious selfies with my son in the background (he was a Korean tourist, and I don’t know if that was acceptable in general or if he was an outlier).

I don’t know if this is true here, but in Korea they can and will ask you how your pooping habits are- your inlaws might ask you if you have pooped yet, and how much without embarrassment, at least, without any embarassment on their part. If you are a westerner, you will probably be writhing inside in embarrassment and feel bathed in awkward sauce.

I watched a popular nationwide Korean television show once where they asked a popular woman singer who was in her sixties how old she had been when she stopped menstruating- it wasn’t a woman’s program, it was mixed company, a popular entertainment program. And nobody thought that was odd or embarrassing. I was recently asked- in a room full of mixed company and all ages- if the Cherub still menstruates. And to top off my embarrassment with a strong scoop of humiliation, I couldn’t understand what the question was. I have trouble hearing when a lot of conservation is going on, and the accent made it harder, plus there was a total lack of context because in my culture there is never a time to expect somebody would ask me that question while making small talk in mixed company. So, one of the men halfway between us repeated it for me, louder so I could understand, without embarrassment. At least, no embarrassment for anybody in the room but me, and I think I covered it well, but I am not sure. I don’t know what cues I sent.

Men urinate on the side of the road, you just avert your eyes. One evening while we were walking home I started counting and quit when we got to a dozen in the first ten minutes. It was a Friday night, so that was part of the reason, but still. You will see a man urinating on the side of the road almost daily, but I do not think I have seen a couple kissing since we got here. Once or twice I’ve seen a couple with his arm around her, but even then, it’s not a close, mushy thing. Sometimes it might be a pair of siblings for all I know, and probably is. Occasionally, I see hand holding, but even that, not so much. I touch my own husband in public more than most young couples here, and I am not an especially handsy person. So there’s a reversal there- in the US it would be shameful to be seen urinating in your neighborhood street, but not all embarrassing to be seen hugging or kissing your boyfriend or spouse.

I do not mean to convey that any of the above things are wrong. But… if you have the understanding that Americans are blunt and tactless while Asians are polite, indirect, and subtle in communication, questions or situations like these can feel disorienting, bewildering. It’s generally true that Asian culture is less direct, American more blunt, but it is also not that simple. Asians are sometimes really direct about some things that Americans are very, very private about, and very, very private or indirect about some things Americans are very outspoken about, and vice versa.

If somebody asks me if I can meet them at 7 on Friday or if I would like to teach a class, I have not the slightest qualm with saying nope, can’t do that. But I would rather be peeled and salted live than discuss my daughter’s menstruation habits with any but a close friend in a one on one situation and only then if I needed to vent or get advice. It would never be small talk conversation. And I think most of our friends here would be very embarrassed, possibly more for us than for them, if we asked them a direct question that they needed to answer with a no. You should know better than to ask that way. You should understand the answer is no if there is hesitancy or a redirection or no answer at all.

So some things are less subtle than others, from an American PoV.

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  1. Cindy
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I think I’ll just stay over here where things make some kind of sense. I’d curl up in a little ball and die before I’d answer that question.

  2. Christine Shah
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Somehow I escaped being embarrassed about any question. I could easily discuss my menstruation patterns with anyone. The thing that makes me squirm is compliments. I love them, but I can’t accept them. I deflect, deny, self-deprecate, blush, stammer, explain away…anything but “Thank you.” I am working on it. But things that normally make Americans uncomfortable are perfectly fine with me, though I know better than to start conversations about sex, money, bodily fluids, religion, politics…etc. I was raised in Indiana, but my family was very talkative and quite blunt.

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