- Communication styles

In Intercultural Communication studies, the following styles of verbal communication have, among others, been identified (e.g., Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey 1988; Gudykunst 1998):

  • direct/indirect communication style
  • elaborate/succinct communication style
  • personal, or person-centered/contextual communication style
  • instrumental/affective communication style

These styles are present in all cultures, and the use of different styles varies depending on the context (e.g., formal or informal situation, personal distance or current relationship of the interactants). Culturally, one particular style might however be considered more appropriate in a given situation. In Finland, for instance, direct, succinct and instrumental styles are in general preferred when presenting information in professional contexts. There are, however, situations when Finns may become very indirect also in professional contexts. These involve, for instance, occasions where there is a need to express criticism.

Direct and indirect communication style

In direct communication style, both parties, the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, expect explicit verbal expression of intentions, wishes, hopes, etc. (e.g., "I am hungry", "I love you"). In indirect communication style the speaker/writer expresses his/her thoughts implicitly, or using hints or modifiers (e.g.. "perhaps", "maybe"). The listener/reader is expected to monitor the nonverbal communication, to read contextual cues, to relate what has been stated to all information available about the speaker/writer and the situation at hand in order to read the real meaning.

Communication styles have been associated with cultural values: direct style with individualism and indirect style with collectivism (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey 1988; Gudykunst 1998). (See more on values in the Theme 3: Cultural value orientations.) Indirect communication is often used in situations where mutual harmony is considered important for maintaining good relationships. This is the case in collectivistic cultures, where people in general feel more mutual interdependency than in individualistic cultures. Open criticism, for instance, would be  inappropriate in public situations, for face-saving reasons. In some Asian cultures, for example, indirectness is also considered to be an elegant style of communication. Training for paying attention to minimal cues and considering the feelings of the other starts in early childhood. Nevertheless, there are communicative situations where communication is very direct. Increasing industrialization, urbanization, and lately, globalization, influence communication behaviour, also in Asia. There are considerable differences in directness and indirectness also between the generations.

Indirect communication can tell about achieved harmony also in individualistic cultures. To be able to communicate successfully indirectly, mutual rapport and understanding is needed. This is often the case in old established relationships (e.g., couples or working partners).

In cross-cultural studies where cultural groups are compared, or when people compare themselves to others, Northern Europeans often come out as being very direct and straightforward (see Vasko, Kjisik & Salo-Lee, 1998). However, these kinds of assumptions should been seen in relative terms (Müller-Jacquier, 2003). Finns, for instance, who consider themselves direct, are, in certain situations, considered by Spanish to be very indirect (Salo-Lee, 2002).

We should remember that all features and phenomena can be found in all cultures, and there are no "typical" individuals. The use of directness and indirectness varies, depending on whether the situation is formal or informal, or how close or distant the interlocutors feel to be to each other.

Elaborate/succinct communication style

The amount of speech as well as one's expressiveness are criteria for the elaborate and succinct communication styles. Volubility and rich language are characteristic for everyday discussions in the cultures of Middle East, for instance. Metaphors, idioms, and proverbs are common. Characteristic for the succinct style are frequent pauses, silence and "low key" verbal expressions that go to the point. Again, there are contextual and individual variations within cultures.

Personal, or person-centered/contextual style

Like directness and indirectness, personal and contextual communication styles also are related in cross-cultural studies to individualism and collectivism. Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey (1988) suggest these styles also express cultural differences in power distance (hierarchy). Person-centered communication style is informal and emphasizes the individual and equalitarian relationships. The person-centeredness is reflected, for instance, by the use of the pronoun I. The contextual style is status and role oriented. Formality and asymmetrical power distance is often emphasized. Personal pronouns are not often used. All information does not need to be explicitly expressed. Yet common background knowledge is assumed, or in essential parts conveyed during the interaction, often indirectly.

Instrumental/affective style

Instrumental and affective communication styles can be also related on one hand to individualism and collectivism, on the other hand to low- and high-context approaches, respectively. Instrumental communication style is goal oriented and sender focused. Affective communication style is process oriented and listener focused. Verbally this means explicitness (instrumental style) and implicitness (affective style). Instrumental style is gradually becoming the style of international business and other professional contexts, particularly in the Western world.


© Liisa Salo-Lee, 2006


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