Speaking in Spirals

One night our taxi driver neighbor called me, asking if his family could come by for a visit that same evening. We readily agreed, excited that this more traditional family felt free enough to pay a visit to us, their strange American neighbors. We also had a Texan friend over that evening, who himself had lived in this family’s home city, one of the few Americans to do so. I was excited for the potential of the visit.

Things went well enough for the first hour or so. We had tea together, munched on sunflower seeds and banana bread, and even joked around some. In what I thought an obvious jest, I told my neighbor that my Texan friend was the nephew of George W. Bush. I later found out the sarcasm must have gotten lost in translation as months later my neighbor was telling his taxi passengers that he had actually met W’s nephew! Attempts at humor in a foreign tongue can sometimes go awry.

About an hour and a half into the visit, the conversation took an abruptly serious turn as my neighbor asked me what the new password was for our wifi. The previous tenant had not had a password and since we had installed one, our neighbors had come to request that we give them the password and thus restore their free internet access. The quiet and focused attention of the family on me when this request was made led us to suddenly realize what the visit had been all about in the first place. Our neighbors hadn’t come and invested an hour and half visiting because they were primarily interested in knowing us. They had a request to make. And an hour and half visit was their way of indirectly spiraling into this one simple request.

We were initially discouraged by this realization. It felt like they didn’t value us as people, but had used the relational visit as a means to increase the force of their request. But the more we learned about the culture, the more we came to understand that this kind of indirect communication, couching requests or statements in visits or metaphorical language, this is meant to be highly respectful. It’s also meant to be clearly understood, but we straight-shooting Westerners sure end up missing a lot of it, much to the consternation of our Central Asian friends.

Indirect vs. direct communication is another prevalent difference in cultures which can often lead to misunderstanding. Many cultures which are more honor/shame oriented speak indirectly as a part of everyday speech. This is certainly true of Middle Easterners and Central Asians.

In our corner of Central Asia, if you mean to accept an offer, instead of a direct “yes,” you should say “no,” “don’t trouble yourself,” “thanks,” or “may your hands be blessed.” Instead of refusing an offer with a direct “no,” you should say “If God wills it,” “May your house ever be this blessed,” or “thanks.”

That’s right, “thanks” can be used to indicate either yes or no, and “no,” for the first three uses or so, actually means yes. Confused? Welcome to the murky world of cross-cultural communication.

“We Iranians laugh and say that we eat like this,” a refugee friend once told me, curling his right arm over his head in order to put a bite in the left side of his mouth. I have often thought about this image as I’ve been in contexts where polite questions are asked about someone’s welfare, their parents’ welfare, their cousins’ welfare, Trump’s welfare, etc., before the actual reason for the visit is stated explicitly. Indirect communicators spiral into serious topics, like a missionary pilot’s Cessna circling a jungle airstrip, trying to find a break in the cloud cover. Let the evangelist take careful note of this point. Just because the conversation hasn’t gotten to spiritual things in the first hour doesn’t mean the evening won’t lead to fruitful discussion. The plane may only be halfway done with its spiral descent.

Indirect communicators also make heavy use of poetic and symbolic phrases. Proverbs, metaphors, and similes are all leveraged for the sake of honorable and gracious communication – or sometimes for the opposite purpose, to take a dig at someone. To tell someone to stop being such a pain in the neck, you can say, “If you’re not a flower, then don’t be a thorn!” On the other hand, when a father and son visit another man’s household to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, they lead with the phrase, “You have a beautiful rose in your garden.” All the men in the room know exactly what that means. An engagement negotiation is about to begin.

“But this all seems so inefficient!” our Western sensibilities cry out. Why not just speak more plainly? Several things are important for us to understand about direct and indirect communicators. The first is that both kinds of people and cultures believe they are being clear. The aim of almost all communication is to be understood, so indirect people and cultures are not usually trying to be opaque – though sometimes they are trying to keep plausible deniability. Usually, indirect communicators have been raised to understand the clear meaning in phrases that, without context, seem unclear or even dishonest to a foreigner. My Central Asian friends believe that everyone knows that the first “no” doesn’t actually mean no.

Second, we need to realize that every culture makes use of both kinds of communication. Even in the West, we tend to speak of sensitive or offensive things in indirect ways. Why is it that no one directly asks about your salary, rent, or your giving to your local church? How would you feel if your waiter asked you directly if his service meant you were going to tip well instead of saying, “And how was everything this evening?” Many a Western marriage has learned that “Little man is stinky!” actually means “Please change our son’s diaper for me.” Or, as many a seminary student has figured out the hard way, it doesn’t usually work to speak too directly about marriage the first time you take a girl out for coffee. Brother, keep the fact that you are interested in marrying her an indirect, open secret for at least the first few dates!

Third, the Bible is full of both kinds of communication. Not only do we have examples like Abraham and Ephron communicating effectively and indirectly, but God himself speaks to us in direct and indirect ways. Much of the Old Testament in God indirectly communicating through narrative that salvation by trying to keep the Law just doesn’t work. What is required is faith in God’s promises of a redeemer. Then he says so directly in passages like Galatians 2:16. When Jesus says in Mark 10:18, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone,” he is saying indirectly that his questioner is not good enough to inherit eternal life (he’s in the category of no one after all), but Jesus is also likely hinting that he himself is good in this true sense, meaning he is God.

As with time-orientation and event-orientation, Christians are in danger of making our preferred directness or indirectness of speech a black-and-white issue, rather than an issue of Christian liberty or preference. If we hold on to the biblical principle of clear, honest, and loving communication (Eph 4:15, Col 4:4), then we are free to leverage different styles of communication as fits the occasion. We all know there is a kind of directness that can be unloving – and that there is a kind of indirectness that can be dishonest. I’m not saying those cliffs don’t exist. But here again I am arguing for a spectrum of biblical fidelity when it comes to the communication cultures of believers.

I can love my American brother by taking his word for it when he says he doesn’t want a cup of coffee. But in order to love my Central Asian brother, I need to press past the first few indirect responses so that I know how I can host him well. Just as we train our children for what questions and observations are polite to deal with directly in our culture, so we can learn these things about the cultures of other believers also. Again, simple spiritual friendship can make all the difference.

What did we do with our neighbors’ request for free wifi? Well, given the honor/shame dynamics of the situation, we made a call on the spot and temporarily agreed to give them the password. But we knew that from a security standpoint we would need to not have others using our wifi network. So a few weeks later, we changed the password again. I think this worked out honorably all around. Our neighbors understood that we were not able to share our wifi as the previous tenant had. They never asked again. We were able to save face by granting their request temporarily, but later indirectly communicating our final decision.

The way to honorably and clearly decline a request is an area we continue to find challenging in our focus culture. And it’s possible we got this situation wrong. Yet we keep trying to learn more so that we can communicate with clarity, wisdom, and grace – whether that be directly or indirectly.

How have you worked through the challenges of direct and indirect communication in your own families and ministries? Feel free to comment below.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

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