• Communication Barriers? Change The Way You Think


    What is it about people of other nationalities that so annoys us? It’s all a matter of PERCEPTION. It’s not about what you are like. It’s about what I think you are like.

    The problem is that this perception is probably historical and not up to date. It is also in my experience invariably negative.

    Received opinions about other nationalities is the source of innumerable clichés and national stereotypes and it can create real barriers to communicating. In Western Europe alone it is easy to assume that British reserve is coldness, French self-interest is selfishness and German directness and clarity is arrogance. Of course, some people are like that but it’s personal – some people, not everyone in the society.

    So how do we deal with it in real life? Well, let’s look at one of the ways people communicate and avoid the unhelpful attitude assumptions.

    Direct and Indirect communicators

    Working with an international group last week, someone broke in to a discussion with, ‘Oh you British, you are so indirect. You never say what you mean with all your, ‘woulds, mays, mights, possibly and perhaps! No-one else in Europe talks like you. ’ That was their perception.

    Well, first of all, we’re not all masters of indirectness. The Scots and the Northern English tend to be much more direct. Secondly the speaker was expressing frustration at the perceived vagueness of some native English speakers in Britain.

    National tendencies towards directness and indirectness

    National groups do tend to express themselves in particular ways. Some nationalities favour a more direct style, even while remaining polite. Others favour a more indirect style, designed to avoid confrontation. The UK is seen to be an example of indirect communication while Germans and Dutch, for example, are seen as examples of direct communication.

    How perception stops communication

    The Germans and the Dutch sometimes see the British as unclear and

    a bit confusing. They may often go further and accuse them of dishonesty and hiding information. The British often see the Germans and the Dutch as outspoken and rude. One of my favourite memories was interviewing a UK Sales Director who insisted there were no cultural issues in his company. When his secretary interrupted him to tell him his Dutch agent was on the line, he responded irritably, ‘I don’t want to talk to him. He’s so rude!’

    Develop a strategy

    Here are some tips.

    Recognise the difference.

    • First of all, recognise the difference between direct and indirect communication.

    Ask more questions.

    • If you are dealing with someone who is more indirect, be prepared to ask more questions.

    Ask open questions not closed ones.

    • Don’t ask, ‘Do you understand?’ Ask ‘Tell me……’ and ‘How did you do this?’ type questions. Then you can assess if the answer you are getting is correct.

    Tell people if you are direct.

    • If you are direct, tell the person you are talking to that you are. That way they won’t take offence at what you say. For example, an Australian project colleague, said to me, ‘Let me tell you, I’m very direct and if I have something to say, I’ll say it. Nothing personal.’ She was pretty critical sometimes but because she’d warned me about her style I never got offended.

    Remember the four stages.


    I have a perception of what you’re like. It may be negative.


    It’s not personal. It’s probably just a stereotype.


    Develop a strategy for dealing with the difference in styles.


    What have you learnt? What will you say, do and THINK differently next time?

    Finally, here’s my favourite direct/indirect story. It happened on the London Olympic site. An engineer from the Indian subcontinent was driving holes for foundation pillars in the ground. The holes had to be six metres deep. A supervisor was checking.

    ‘How deep is this hole?’ he asked.

    ‘About six metres,’ the engineer replied politely.

    ‘I don’t need about six metres,’ responded the supervisor, irritably. ‘Exactly how deep is this hole?’

    ‘Exactly, six metres.’ Came the reply.

    Which answer would you accept?


    What do they really mean?

    Try this with a group. Write ten sentences five indirect, five direct. Choose real examples, if possible. Ask the group. What do they really mean?


Web feed

Culture Blog

You are viewing the text version of this site.

To view the full version please install the Adobe Flash Player and ensure your web browser has JavaScript enabled.

Need help? check the requirements page.

Get Flash Player