American culture tends to equate directness with power and status. However, Tannen demonstrates that strength is seen through indirectness too. Foreign countries, such as Japan, highly regard indirectness as polite. In one conversation between a male Japanese manager and one of his female employees, the manager politely requested his employee to complete a project by introducing the task indirectly so she could volunteer to accomplish it. Tannen comments:
“It was precisely because of his higher status that the boss was free to choose whether to speak formally or informally, to assert his power or to downplay it and build rapport—an option not available to the subordinate.” (86).
In another example, Tannen relates the experience of one young man who had just joined the US Navy. During a class, the chief continually repeated that the classroom was hot. When the students did not respond, he enlightened them by saying he expected them to fix the problem. This lesson demonstrated indirectness and related to similar future situations as well.
Although men are seen as more direct in most settings, men demonstrate indirectness in expressing emotions or problems. In contrast, women do not take this approach and openly confide in their friends when expressing feelings. This may be surprising, but Tannen evaluates:
“We are all indirect, meaning more than we put into words and deriving from others that they never actually say. It’s a matter of where, when, and how we each tend to be indirect and look for hidden meanings” (89).
Indirectness does have its downsides though. Audio recordings from the cockpit of several plane crashes reveal the co-pilots indirectly warned the captains of potential problems. Linguist experts agree that indirectness can be misunderstood if people are not well acquainted or have a different style of communication.
In American culture, a negative connotation is associated with indirectness. In fact, some individuals who have adopted a more indirect conversational style think they have a problem. Tannen finally concludes:
“First, it is not the case that women are always more indirect, as I’ve just shown. Second, there is nothing wrong with indirectness as a strategy when it is shared. When it’s not shared, however, trouble can result—not from indirectness, but from the difference in styles” (102).
1) How do you think a balance between indirect and direct communication can be reached?
2) Do you notice that you gravitate toward one style in certain settings, but the other in alternative settings?
3) Why do you think Americans value a direct approach?