It is standard practice in the world of cross-cultural knowledge to say Indians are indirect in their communication. And it is true. Sometimes.
You have likely interacted enough with India to know that such a simple and generalized statement will break down eventually.
Indians can be very direct and very indirect, all depending on the context.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s hear from one of the great modern writers on India.
Craig Storti’s Model
In 2007, Craig Storti gave the world an extremely helpful framework for understanding the differences between communication in India and the West. His book, Speaking of India
described a communication spectrum with indirect communication on the left, direct communication in the middle, and rude or blunt communication on the right side.
To summarize, indirect communication is heavily non-verbal, using body language, intonation, inflection, or sarcasm to encrypt a meaning in a package the sender hopes the recipient will understand.
Direct communication is focused on getting information across to someone and places emphasis on the literal meaning of phrases.
Rude communication is very forceful and is perceived as overly blunt.
Storti’s most valuable insight into these spectrums is that each culture has its own unique definitions for each of these three styles. For example, if an Indian must refuse an invitation to attend a wedding from her boss, here are three responses she might give:
Indian Indirect: Wow, thank you so much for the invitation. I’m sure it will be a very great time. I will do my best to make sure I am there.
Indian Direct: Thank you so much for the invitation. It would be a real honor to attend. I have a very important family commitment I must attend that day, but I will try to come.
Indian Rude: Oh, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to come to the wedding, as I have something else happening the same day.
Now let’s look at definitions of the same terms by a different culture (Germany for example).
German Indirect: Thank you for the invitation. It would be nice to come, but I have a very important family commitment that I must attend. If I am able, I will come.
German Direct: Unfortunately I won’t be able to come to the wedding, as I have something else happening the same day. I hope it is a great time.
German Rude: I do not want to come to the wedding and cannot make time for it.
Storti juxtaposes these two spectrums to show how they don’t line up exactly like each other.
In fact, you might see that the German indirect looks a lot like the Indian direct, and the German direct like the Indian rude.
This insight alone has helped thousands of people working with India and other “indirect” cultures. Most of us never realize that different cultures define the word “direct” in very different ways. And when you are asking your Indian reportee to be more direct with you, they might be saying to themselves “I am being direct!” It’s just that you are still hearing it as indirect.
But there is a deeper layer to this model you need to know.
As mentioned earlier, the majority of studies you will read say India is more indirect than other western countries.
But that is not always true…
If you’ve been in India, you know that Indians can be pretty direct with each other, especially in the office. There was one visiting foreign manager who was shocked to see how a man she thought was very meek ended up yelling at his subordinates in front of her. Expats living in India are surprised how rude a government clerk can be in speaking to someone trying to submit a form.
Here’s a helpful addition to Storti’s model that gives you a more complete picture of what is going on.
In India, and most of the world, the choice to use indirect, direct, or rude communication (especially in terms of giving negative information) is most heavily based on the delicacy of the relationship.
Delicacy of relationship means how sensitively you need to treat a relationship and particularly how much you have to lose if the relationship breaks down as a result of something you said. A delicate or fragile relationship requires you to be much more careful in what you say, and hence more indirect. Indirect information is the safer option because it encodes the message in a way the sender hopes the receiver will interpret without being offending. #Thinskinned
Here are some examples of highly delicate relationships in India: bosses, top clients, and foreigners. Each of these groups receives more indirect communication because the giver of the information is a little unsure how they will respond, and they have a lot to lose if the relationship falls apart.
Moderately delicate relationships are peer-level relationships, mid-level clients, and big vendors. These groups will usually get direct communication since the relationships are important, but not as fragile.
The least delicate relationships in India are subordinates, support staff, mass customers and low-level vendors. These groups generally get blunt communication since there is no real fear of the relationship breaking down, and not much to lose if they do.
Why are foreigners on the most delicate list? Don’t they know I want direct communication?
If you are a foreigner, it is hard for Indians to put you into the second category (where you probably want to be), mainly because for most of their professional lives, speaking directly to someone is equivalent with not respecting the relationship.
In India, the phrase atithi devo bava means the guest is god. A visiting foreigner is a guest and should be treated with respect, and you show respect by not being too direct. There are countless Hindu mythological stories told to children where a guest comes to visit someone and ends up being a god incognito. These stories reinforce the idea that you should be careful in the treatment of guests.
It takes a lot of practice and time for an Indian to be comfortable giving direct communication to a superior and to a foreigner.
A foreign manager, Jerry, was visiting India for the first time and his team members showed him around the city. Towards the end of his trip, Jerry visited a handicrafts store where an artisan was making glass figurines. Jerry put out his left hand to accept a figurine, but the glass blower frowned and refused to give it to him. Finally the artisan pointed to Jerry’s right hand. Jerry then extended it, and the artisan gave the figurine to him with a smile.
Jerry didn’t know that in India you should always give and receive things with the right hand and not the left.
Being left-handed, Jerry was embarrassed to think back to his entire trip and all the things he had accepted or given with his left hand. He was upset with his team because the entire time they were with him, they never corrected him, and Jerry was afraid of all the other cultural gaffes he had made.
For his team members, because Jerry was a boss and a foreigner (perceived as a super-delicate relationship), they did everything they could to make him feel welcome, including not criticizing/correcting him and being very indirect. However, the artisan saw Jerry as a regular customer, and could afford to be more direct with him. #CustomerIsAlwaysThere
Are all Indians Indirect?
If you notice, the writers and theorists who say Indians are all indirect generally all come from the top category of more delicate relationships and are usually given deferential treatment. That’s how this myth got passed around that all Indians are indirect in their communication. As the global market expands and India takes a larger role, it will become clear there is much more than meets the eye (or ear).
Remember these two foundational points as you communicate in India:
-Different cultures define the terms indirect, direct, and rude in different ways, and probably not like you do.
-The biggest factor in determining how direct an Indian chooses to be is the delicacy of the relationship.
In future posts, we’ll talk about
- All the things you are not hearing your Indian colleagues say
- How to use the communication spectrums
- Why Storti was wrong about westerners being direct
- Why you should think more about the order of your communication