1.6.3 - Communication Styles


Communication Styles


In addition to the nonverbal communication cues discussed, how we say things is influenced by culture. This is referred to as "communication style." While there are many nuances in communication styles there are essentially five contrasts in the way we approach topics of conversation -not the content but the way in which we debate, converse, ask questions, and organize verbal communication- that are challenging in interactions between people from different cultures. This can be one of the most tricky aspects of communication because we tend to react to different “styles” immediately and emotionally. But when we think back on an exchange which has not gone well and analyze just the words spoken, we often cannot figure out why we are so annoyed and/or frustrated. Knowing something about communication styles will be very helpful to you in figuring out why “how” something is said is just as important as “what” was actually verbalized because we tend to react to style unconsciously and instinctively.



Before we discuss communication styles, answer the following questions just to get a sense of the verbal style that is comfortable for you. 





1.      I deal with problems in a systematic way.

2.     I may take the opposite view on a topic just for the sake of discussion.

3.      I like to give lots of information before stating my main point.

4.  I find the step-to-step approach very effective.

5.      It is necessary to give background for any topic that is discussed.

6.     It is easier to understand a topic if the speaker gives examples of what he or she is talking about.  

7.      I use my hands a lot when expressing myself. 

8.      I feel strongly about some topics and I say so.

9.      Debating is a good way to get things sorted out. 

10.  I need proof to accept statements that are made.

See discussion of answers.




Communication styles vary enormously across the globe. However, like so many of the contrast sets we have examined so far, most countries tend to prefer one or the other of the five we will examine here: 

Linear versus Circular = straight line discussion versus a more circular approach

Direct versus Indirect = meaning conveyed by words versus through suggestion  

Detached versus Attached = objective presentation versus expressive style

Intellectual Engagement versus Relational Engagement = Discussion is about the task versus discussion about the task and the person

Concrete versus Abstract = example driven versus theory driven discussion



Why Should You Pay Attention to These Differences?

In this list, US-Americans tend to be on the left side, that is, to prefer linear, direct, detached, intellectually engaged, and concrete styles of communication. In contrast, many African, Asian, and Pacific groups prefer more circular, indirect, attached, relationally engaged styles. Europeans can have a combination, for example, in Spain (and much of Latin America), people prefer a strong, relational engagement, and attached style of communication while also being direct, linear, and abstract in their approach. The French style is often abstract, intellectually engaged, and detached. Many permutations of these five styles are found worldwide. 

The point here is that anyone about to enter an international study abroad program is likely to encounter styles of communication which are unfamiliar and, perhaps, disconcerting. If a new acquaintance overseas begins a long, meandering story in response to a question you posed, it is far better to say, "He or she certainly has a circular style!" than, "What is the matter with them, can’t they get to the point?" Learning to deal with a new set of communication styles is part of the challenge of studying abroad. If you learn to do it well, it will add to your ability to effectively communicate with a wider range of people than you can now and significantly increase your intercultural skills. A fuller explanation of these styles follows below.





Linear: Discussion is conducted in a straight line, almost like an outline, with the connections among the points stated as you move towards an end point, which is stated explicitly. There is a low reliance on context and a strong reliance on words. (Cut to the chase, where the rubber meets the road!)

Circular (contextual) Discussion is conducted in a circular manner, telling stories and developing a context around the main point, which is often unstated because the listener will get the point after I give them all the information. There is a high reliance on context. (Once you have the relevant information, you’ll know what I mean.)

Direct:  Meaning is conveyed through explicit statements made directly to the people involved with little reliance on contextual factors such as situation and timing. (What you see is what you get! Tell it like it is!)

Indirect:  Meaning is conveyed by suggestion, implication, nonverbal behavior, and other contextual cues; for instance, statements intended for one person may be made within earshot of a different person. It is possible that messages will be sent through a third-party intermediary. Mostly, however, this style allows one to avoid confronting another person or cause them to lose face. (What you get is what you manage to see!)

Attached:  Issues are discussed with feeling and emotion, conveying the speaker's personal stake in the issue and the outcome. This shows the passion someone feels in a situation or for an issue. (If it’s important, it’s worth getting worked up over!)

Detached:  Issues are discussed with calmness and objectivity, conveying the speaker's ability to weigh all the factors impersonally. It is important to be objective. (If it’s important, it shouldn’t be tainted by personal bias!)

Intellectual Engagement: Any disagreement with ideas is  stated directly, with the assumption that only the idea, not the relationship, is being attacked. This is an intellectual style found in some European countries. (We’re just arguing-don’t take it personally!)

Relational Engagement: Relational issues and problems are confronted directly, while intellectual disagreement is handled more subtly and indirectly. If you have a problem with someone, it helps to talk things over, albeit in an non-confrontational manner. In an intellectual debate, it is important to be tread softly. (Be authentic about your feelings and respectful of other's ideas.)

Concrete: Issues are best understood through stories, metaphors, allegories, and examples, with emphasis on the specific rather than the general. (What’s an example?)

Abstract:  Issues are best understood through theories, principles, and data, with emphasis on the general rather than the specific. (What’s the principle?)