Direct vs. Indirect Communication

Over the past three weeks, the project has grinded to a snail’s pace as we’ve been stuck waiting for our rock demolition contractor. Throughout the process I’ve been learning some difficult lessons in cross-cultural communication.

One of the books that we read before coming here was Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier. It’s a good book, a short read, and I highly suggest that anyone read it no matter whether you’re going to another country or not. The book primarily focuses on the worldview differences between “warm-climate” cultures and “cold-climate” cultures. One of the primary differences between our “cold-climate” culture and the “warm-climate” culture is direct communication vs. indirect communication.

In our cold-climate culture, we use a direct style of communication primarily because of the extreme value we place on our time and other people’s time. When we say that we are going to be somewhere at a certain time, we generally will try to be there at or close to that time. To be late or not show up at all will invoke apologies and explanations because this tardiness or absentness has caused someone to lose time.

In a warm-climate culture, relationship is valued above everything else which leads to an indirect communication style. One would not dare to tell someone the truth if they thought it would lead to the other person looking on them poorly. To speak directly, is to be rude and inconsiderate of the other person’s feelings. In a warm-climate culture, it is better to lie than to risk hurting the relationship. It is up to the person receiving the information to decipher it within the context of the culture, which is where it become difficult for westerners. In reality, the practical outworking of this is often difficult for us to understand because, as I have often felt over the past few weeks, the indirect communication and sometimes downright lying has led to a total breakdown in relationship.

Ultimately, this has all played out in a lot of miscommunication over the last three weeks. Three weeks ago, I called the contractor to try to get him to come finish our contract so we could start the work. He said he was coming soon but eventually we found out that he was 1,200km away in Dar es Salaam and didn’t want to tell us and disappoint us. Eventually, after a week of lying as to his actual location, we eventually got him to Mumba to sign the contract last Wednesday. When I asked him when he would start the work, he stated that it would be Friday morning last week. Since signing the contract, I have called him 5 or 6 times every day. He usually states that he is coming that day but when pressed for a time, he won’t give one. In a “warm-climate” culture, this is a very definitive NO. It is my job, as someone living in this culture, to interpret this. Occasionally he has even given me a time but this is always in an effort not to disappoint me. On Wednesday we finally got him here and he even set up a temporary work campsite. Since then, he has disappeared again and I am resigned to continue my incessant calling.

You may be thinking, “What does culture have to do with this? This guy is a slimy contractor that is up to no good.”

In the end, this may turn out to be true; but, you can be certain that a great deal of the problem is a difference in communication style. Had the contractor said three weeks ago that he wasn’t able to start the work for three weeks, I no doubt would have been disappointed but would have had a better understanding of where he was coming from and would have adjusted my schedule accordingly.

Please pray for us as we learn to interpret the indirect communications of this culture and pray that we would not get angry as it is so easy to do when we interpret things as dishonesty. Pray that we would be able to start the jackhammering soon as our schedule is becoming quite tight.

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