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Author Topic: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect  (Read 7095 times)

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gellchom

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Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« on: September 19, 2017, 11:14:04 AM »
I immediately thought of our ehell conversations about indirect vs. indirect communication when I read this excellent piece this morning by Deborah Tannen, who has written extensively about differing communications styles, between men and women (You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation), between different cultures, and between women of different backgrounds.  She has researched and written on indirect vs. direct communication specifically.

This column uses an anecdote about a friend insisting on helping when over for dinner.  Tannen, raised by a "direct" mother, meant "please don't help" literally, and was frustrated by her friend's repeatedly jumping up; her friend understood it to mean what her own mother, who would protest endlessly when she helped but really wanted her to do so, would have meant: "As a guest, you don't need to help, so it's all the nicer that you do."  I think that Tannen gets right to the heart of the misunderstandings, in a nonjudgmental way, and it's very interesting how she looks at it as almost an echo of our mothers (which is what most of the comments I read responded to).  Here's the link:
Quote
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19/opinion/language-female-friendship-mothers.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fopinion&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0

This excerpt sounds like it could have been a reflection on our discussions here:

Quote
... the confusion caused when one speaker means words literally and the other thinks they are hinting at something else.  And indirectness is a key example I use in cautioning that what is sometimes attributed to psychological, even pathological, motives may simply be differing linguistic styles.  Those who expect requests to be expressed directly, for example, may perceive someone being vague as being manipulative, or even passive-aggressive.[Guilty! :)]
Indeed, one of the most common dynamics I have found among female friends is frustration when one misconstrues what the other meant ... [women] learn not to make outright demands, so they avoid the damning label "bossy."

And here is an excerpt from her Wikipedia page that discusses cultural indirect/direct styles (footnotes omitted):
Quote
Indirectness as a Sociocultural Norm
During a trip to Greece, Tannen observed that comments she had made to her hosts about foods she had not seen yet in Greece (specifically, scrambled eggs and grapes) had been interpreted as indirect requests for the foods. This was surprising to her, since she had just made the comments in the spirit of small talk. Tannen observed this same tendency of Greeks and Greek-Americans to interpret statements indirectly in a study that involved interpreting the following conversation between a husband and a wife:

Wife: Johnís having a party. Wanna go?
Husband: Okay.
[later]
Wife: Are you sure you want to go to the party?
Husband: Okay, letís not go. Iím tired anyway.
 
The participants Ė some Greeks, some Greek-Americans, and some non-Greek Americans Ė had to choose between the following two paraphrases of the second line in the exchange:

[1-I] My wife wants to go to this party, since she asked. Iíll go to make her happy.
[1-D]My wife is asking if I want to go to a party. I feel like going, so Iíll say yes
 
Tannenís findings showed that 48% of Greeks chose the first (more indirect) paraphrase, while only 32% of non-Greek Americans chose the same one, with the Greek-Americans scoring closer to the Greeks than the other Americans at 43%. These percentages, combined with other elements of the study, suggest that the degree of indirectness a listener generally expects may be affected through sociocultural norms.

I have lived briefly in two countries with indirect cultures.  In one, the answer was always "yes," whether it was really yes or no or maybe.  In the other, it was "yes" or "I will try," which meant "no."  I learned that that is how it went, and never to rely on a "yes" in the first place or to take "I will try" as "possibly yes" in the second, and not to judge or take it personally.  But what I never figured out was how the people in the first country knew what "yeses" they could and couldn't take as real yeses they could rely on and how people in the second country communicated that they really would try to do something when that's what they meant!  When we asked our friends and colleagues, they just laughed and said that they didn't know either -- but that can't be right, can it (unless they just meant they didn't know how to articulate how they know)?  How do they get anything done -- I'm thinking of a business or financial context, not social -- if they don't know what they can expect?  (For what it's worth, in the first country, things did get done, if not quite when promised; in the second, even things that got a "yes" did tend not to happen efficiently or ever, at least not in our city.)

So what do you think, ehell?  Does this help us to learn to "translate"?  Or at least to understand and not judge?

lmyrs

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2017, 11:38:00 AM »
I don't think it helps to translate at all to be honest. I think it offers a piece of understanding as to why some people don't say what they mean, which generally means they don't believe what others say. But, I don't think that's new information. It still doesn't allow someone to know whether someone is telling the truth until they realize it after the fact.

In other words, if you tell me "yes" and you mean "no" there is no way for me to know that unless I've had multiple interactions where you've done so and by then, I think it's too late.

sweetonsno

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #2 on: September 19, 2017, 01:26:45 PM »
I agree with lmyrs on this one; it doesn't necessarily help with translation. Awareness of a person's cultural background certainly can--I do have a bit of background in intercultural communications because of my work, and learning about the etiquette of communicating desire, etc, has helped me there. However, these are just patterns. On an individual level, I really need to know who a person is.

I have asked, and been asked, what something means explicitly. For instance, someone asked me if she could borrow a pair of my shoes. I said yes, and she said, "Are you sure? I know that I might say yes even if I didn't want to." I appreciated that she had thought about it.
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TurtleDove

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #3 on: September 19, 2017, 03:55:29 PM »
So what do you think, ehell?  Does this help us to learn to "translate"?  Or at least to understand and not judge?

I think it is interesting to understand where another person might be coming from, but like previous posters I don't think it actually helps solve any communications issues until it is "too late." I am a direct person, and indirectness drives me crazy. Understanding that Betty really meant no when she said yes does not ingratiate me to Betty if I relied on Betty's yes, even if I later learn it is because her mother acted indirectly. I tend to think that in business settings, indirectness is the kiss of death. In personal relationships, I tend to think we gravitate toward those we communicate well with. For me, this would be direct people. If a person prefers to be indirect, I would pretty quickly learn to not trust them and would not likely become close with them. They would likely find me not a good match for them as well.

So I think understanding the "why" is interesting, but in real life I don't think people are likely to seek out relationships with people they feel they cannot communicate with, regardless of the reason.


Stricken_Halo

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #4 on: September 19, 2017, 05:28:11 PM »
I read Tannen's book, and I found myself getting annoyed at the hinters. I'm Greek-American, and I'm glad my parents didn't teach me to communicate like this. The second example,

Quote
Wife: Are you sure you want to go to the party?
Husband: Okay, letís not go. Iím tired anyway.

is especially confusing. Why did the wife ask a second time when the husband already said okay? How was she supposed to know whether the husband actually wanted to go or whether he was just saying yes to please her? Was the husband's "okay" not enthusiastic enough and thus a signal to her that he wasn't really up for the idea? Did she not really want to go and was signaling this to the husband, so that he, being "the man," would have the final say? Was she irked at the husband for backing out when he had initially agreed, or was that what she wanted all along?

Has anyone come across the "no, no, yes" expectation when offered something? I imagine the scenario as something like this:

Wrong:

Hostess: Joe, would you like the last piece of chicken?
Joe: No, thank you.
Hostess: How about you, Bill?
Bill: Yes, please!
[Joe fumes because he wanted that chicken.]

Right:

Hostess: Joe, would you like the last piece of chicken?
Joe: No, thank you.
Hostess: Are you sure?
Joe: Yes, I couldn't eat another bite.
Hostess: I can see you're still hungry. Here... [passes the platter]
Joe: Thank you! [takes the chicken]

nutraxfornerves

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #5 on: September 19, 2017, 06:08:12 PM »
The " NO, NO, YES" thing can be very cultural. There are cultures where the polite thing is to decline an offer several times (three is a common magic number) before finally accepting. This can be food, a gift, or a favor. The person making the offer is supposed to refuse to take "no" for an answer.  The refusal is a ritual to show a sense of modesty, humility & lack of greed. With something like food, it can be a bit of a dance to get the message across when "no" really is "no."

However, when you get cross-cultural situations, you really can have poor old Joe hurt and puzzled about not getting some more chicken, when "everybody knows" that this ritual is the social norm. On the other hand, when it is the host who observes the ritual, Joe gets annoyed by the host's insistence and pushiness

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Hmmmmm

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #6 on: September 19, 2017, 06:53:18 PM »
I read Tannen's book, and I found myself getting annoyed at the hinters. I'm Greek-American, and I'm glad my parents didn't teach me to communicate like this. The second example,

Quote
Wife: Are you sure you want to go to the party?
Husband: Okay, letís not go. Iím tired anyway.

is especially confusing. Why did the wife ask a second time when the husband already said okay? How was she supposed to know whether the husband actually wanted to go or whether he was just saying yes to please her? Was the husband's "okay" not enthusiastic enough and thus a signal to her that he wasn't really up for the idea? Did she not really want to go and was signaling this to the husband, so that he, being "the man," would have the final say? Was she irked at the husband for backing out when he had initially agreed, or was that what she wanted all along?

Has anyone come across the "no, no, yes" expectation when offered something? I imagine the scenario as something like this:

Wrong:

Hostess: Joe, would you like the last piece of chicken?
Joe: No, thank you.
Hostess: How about you, Bill?
Bill: Yes, please!
[Joe fumes because he wanted that chicken.]

Right:

Hostess: Joe, would you like the last piece of chicken?
Joe: No, thank you.
Hostess: Are you sure?
Joe: Yes, I couldn't eat another bite.
Hostess: I can see you're still hungry. Here... [passes the platter]
Joe: Thank you! [takes the chicken]

As far the party question, I can easily see this scenario. The DH is a pleaser and assumes if wife didn't want to go she wouldn't bring it up so we agrees. Later wife notices DH is tired so says do you really giving the DH an out. I don't even see this as indirect communication.

With most indirect communicators, they do not get mad if they are taken at their word, we'll at least most times. For instance I might say to DH "How does Italian sound for dinner" with the expectation that he'll understand I am brining up Italian because that is what I want for dinner. Now I do state it that way so if he had Italian for lunch he can say "Oh just had that. Can we do Chinese instead." Which to my ear is better to hear for me than me saying "I want Italian for dinner" and him saying "No I'd rather have Chinese." By saying "no" he has now flat out put his wants above my wants.

As far as the chicken scenario, I doubt if there was one piece left you'd single out one guest to get it over another making them the second choice guest. The way I'd see it going is:
"Joe, please have that last piece of chicken"
"No, I couldn't eat another bite"
"Oh, Please eat it. Otherwise it will go to waste"
"Oh, I'm sure someone else would want it tomorrow."
"No, no one will be here to eat it tomorrow"
"Well, ok, if you insist"

blarg314

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #7 on: September 19, 2017, 09:37:21 PM »

I agree that in many situations it is literally impossible to tell whether someone means what they say or the exact opposite, without additional information.

I find there are certain things you can calibrate fairly easily - when you're hosting someone from X culture, you need to ask multiple times to get a true answer, for example. Then there is other stuff where it literally takes years of constant experience to learn how to interpret what people say in a given culture - exact turns of phrase, minor variations in tone of voice and body language. And that's for a single culture that has an established (if different) way of communicating.

When you have a mixture of cultures and backgrounds and personalities and upbringings, though, you have to calibrate for each person.

For the chicken case, I can also see it going

Hostess: Joe, would you like the last piece of chicken?
Joe: No, thank you.
Hostess: Are you sure?
Joe: Yes, I couldn't eat another bite.
Hostess: I can see you're still hungry. Here...
Joe: I don't want any more chicken. I'm full! Please leave me alone!

Or Joe eating the chicken to be polite, and having indigestion for the rest of the evening because he genuinely was full.

With indirect communication, there's also the problem that sometimes you literally do not know that someone is trying to pass you information.


Raintree

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #8 on: September 20, 2017, 12:00:15 AM »
Oh, the indirectness thing drives me crazy.

One personal anecdote comes to mind. I had a job in which some tasks required sitting, and other tasks required standing/moving around. All needed to be done, all the time, and nobody was assigned to one specific task. Instead, it usually worked out with people shuffling between tasks naturally: "Hey, do you want to take over Sitting Task for a bit?" (If you were tired of Sitting Task and felt like doing Standing Task instead). People were pretty cooperative and sometimes just did what they could see needed doing, or would ask, "Hey, do you want to do this, and I'll do that"? It was in everyone's interest to keep all tasks going so that we could get it all done efficiently.

But then this new guy came along. His English was not very good, and he was from another culture. An extremely nice man, but there were sometimes issues with the language and cultural barrier. One day I had been doing Sitting Task for several hours and I desperately needed to get up and move about for a while. Sitting task could not be stopped to take a break; someone needed to be working on it constantly. On this particular day I was suffering a really bad back problem and the dull ache was turning to sharp, debilitating pain. I *NEEDED* to get up. I asked the co-worker to take over the sitting task. He refused. I tried to explain that I was in pain. He kept saying, "No, no, you sit, you sit..." I begged and pleaded for him to take over. And I was mad that he wouldn't do it, because the culture in there was that everyone was expected to do all the tasks as needed. Nobody got to hog one particular task. And he was new. Finally I just got up and quit the sitting task, I was in so much pain, and just started doing the standing task, hoping he'd finally take it over. But of course, the sitting task now was not getting done, which created a problem with production. Instead of sitting down, he kept trying to get me to sit and continue.

My manager wasn't there at the time, but I later complained to her and she talked to him. Turns out that he felt that as the newer employee, he should be the one to stand as a sign of respect for me, ie he felt that the sitting task was the more important job and that he was being respectful by insisting I sit. And I guess he thought I was playing the same game, when in reality, no, I really did need to stand up.

Gladly

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #9 on: September 20, 2017, 04:05:49 AM »
I found myself in a similar position when I moved from Scotland to South West England.  In my job in Glasgow, if I needed help from a co-worker the culture was be polite, but get to the point "Hi, sorry to bother you, but do you know how to/where to find/the answer to X?  Great.  Thanks.  See you later"

When I moved south, that approach was seen as brusque, almost to the point of rudeness.  It would be more like "Hi, how are you?  Did you have a good weekend?  Oh you went camping, how did the kids cope with all the rain on Sunday?  No, we didn't do much.  Oh, by the way, I wonder if you can help me.  I'm working on project ABC, and need a bit of help with X"

Once I got my head round the difference, things got a lot easier.

Stricken_Halo

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #10 on: September 20, 2017, 04:35:38 AM »
I found myself in a similar position when I moved from Scotland to South West England.  In my job in Glasgow, if I needed help from a co-worker the culture was be polite, but get to the point "Hi, sorry to bother you, but do you know how to/where to find/the answer to X?  Great.  Thanks.  See you later"

When I moved south, that approach was seen as brusque, almost to the point of rudeness.  It would be more like "Hi, how are you?  Did you have a good weekend?  Oh you went camping, how did the kids cope with all the rain on Sunday?  No, we didn't do much.  Oh, by the way, I wonder if you can help me.  I'm working on project ABC, and need a bit of help with X"

Once I got my head round the difference, things got a lot easier.
This seems a bit different in that you do state what you want directly, but you are expected to make small talk first. I'm wondering if this is a thing in the Northern/Southern U.S. too.

Dazi

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #11 on: September 20, 2017, 07:38:22 AM »
Ah, the indirect vs the direct. It's always driven me batty. I grew up in a mixed household. My mother is an indirect, to the point of near or actually PA indirectness. I am very direct, like my father. I will warn new people who meet me, I do not play the ask 3 times crap. I will ask you once and take your response at face value, so it better be what you mean. If you want the temperature adjusted, you need to tell me, "I'm hot/cold, could you please change the setting?"

Growing up, maybe or I'll think about it from mom, was a no. Why not just say no? Yes could be a yes or actually a maybe. I never understood that.
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VorFemme

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #12 on: September 20, 2017, 09:43:21 AM »
I used to have a relative by marriage who grew up in a South American country, he went to work for a multi-national company out of college and did amazingly well in sales with them because he *knew* instinctively (from growing up in the culture) how long to spend on the social chit-chat that demonstrated that there was a real closeness rather than the Norte Americano brusqueness that made interactions only about business. 

At one point, he was getting chewed out for the length of his phone calls to the overseas locations, but when they compare that to his sales & his customers' satisfaction (measured at least partly in repeat sales), the bosses decided that he knew what he was doing & kept quiet as long as he was doing well for the company.

The marriage broke up...but I remember the stories how different the expectations were...
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miranova

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #13 on: September 20, 2017, 09:57:29 AM »
I read Tannen's book, and I found myself getting annoyed at the hinters. I'm Greek-American, and I'm glad my parents didn't teach me to communicate like this. The second example,

Quote
Wife: Are you sure you want to go to the party?
Husband: Okay, letís not go. Iím tired anyway.

is especially confusing. Why did the wife ask a second time when the husband already said okay? How was she supposed to know whether the husband actually wanted to go or whether he was just saying yes to please her? Was the husband's "okay" not enthusiastic enough and thus a signal to her that he wasn't really up for the idea? Did she not really want to go and was signaling this to the husband, so that he, being "the man," would have the final say? Was she irked at the husband for backing out when he had initially agreed, or was that what she wanted all along?

Has anyone come across the "no, no, yes" expectation when offered something? I imagine the scenario as something like this:

Wrong:

Hostess: Joe, would you like the last piece of chicken?
Joe: No, thank you.
Hostess: How about you, Bill?
Bill: Yes, please!
[Joe fumes because he wanted that chicken.]

Right:

Hostess: Joe, would you like the last piece of chicken?
Joe: No, thank you.
Hostess: Are you sure?
Joe: Yes, I couldn't eat another bite.
Hostess: I can see you're still hungry. Here... [passes the platter]
Joe: Thank you! [takes the chicken]

As far the party question, I can easily see this scenario. The DH is a pleaser and assumes if wife didn't want to go she wouldn't bring it up so we agrees. Later wife notices DH is tired so says do you really giving the DH an out. I don't even see this as indirect communication.

With most indirect communicators, they do not get mad if they are taken at their word, we'll at least most times. For instance I might say to DH "How does Italian sound for dinner" with the expectation that he'll understand I am brining up Italian because that is what I want for dinner. Now I do state it that way so if he had Italian for lunch he can say "Oh just had that. Can we do Chinese instead." Which to my ear is better to hear for me than me saying "I want Italian for dinner" and him saying "No I'd rather have Chinese." By saying "no" he has now flat out put his wants above my wants.



For the first bolded statement, oh how I wish this was my experience.  But sadly, it isn't.  I have found out weeks, months, sometimes even years later that I wasn't supposed to take something someone said literally and they were still mad about it.

For the second bolded, I don't see it this way at all!  When I want a particular thing for dinner, it does not mean that I want that one thing more than I want both of us to be happy.  So if I say "I'm really in the mood for Italian tonight, what about you?" I actually, literally want to know if the other person wants it too.  If they don't, then there are 100 other things to choose from and I'd rather us both be 90% happy than for me to be 100% happy and them to be 0% happy.  Which is why I'm asking what I'm asking.  If the answer was "no, I don't really feel like Italian" that does not at all mean that someone has put their wants above my wants.  It's simply the beginning of a discussion where we can hopefully find common ground.

nutraxfornerves

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Re: Communications Expert Deborah Tannen on Direct and Indirect
« Reply #14 on: September 20, 2017, 10:05:59 AM »
Quote
This seems a bit different in that you do state what you want directly, but you are expected to make small talk first. I'm wondering if this is a thing in the Northern/Southern U.S. too.

That other thread got me looking at some research on direct & indirect conversation. One study I read (and I'm too lazy to try to find it again) included recordings of people of two different cultures when asking a favor of a friend.

In one indirect culture, the initial chit chat was indeed important. In one recoding, the people spent several minutes on "how's your family?" It wasn't until the person in need was leaving that she turned and said "Oh, by the way..." and asked about getting a college reference for her child. In the second one, in another culture, the person in need began with "Hi. How are you? I'd like to ask a favor. Can you provide Junior a reference?"

Nutrax
The plural of anecdote is not data