Indirect communication is acting out rather than directly saying what a person is thinking or feeling using facial expressions, tone of voice, and/or gestures.
Susan Heitler, PhD and GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert, describes indirect communication as “hinting or acting out,” often with nonverbal behaviors like gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, pauses, or periods of silence. Indirect communicators, who tend to act out their feelings rather than say them directly, are typically looking to save face or to avoid situations of conflict, where they may experience uncomfortable amounts of tension and unrest (Joyce, 2012).
For someone who is not accustomed to a particular culture, social group, or intimate partner’s way of communicating, it can be difficult to decipher the meaning of an indirect communication.
For instance, if Tina and Carlos are coworkers and Tina disapproves of Carlos’ eating habits at his desk but does not know how to communicate this directly to him, she may emit loud, exasperated sighs or glare at Carlos disapprovingly–examples of indirect communication. Carlos may hear the sighs and see Tina’s looks of displeasure, but he may not interpret these to mean that Tina is necessarily upset with the way he eats. He may simply come to believe that Tina dislikes him for no particular reason.
Another common method of indirect communication that often falls short is the use of co-optive questions that start with words like “Isn’t it true that. . .?” or “Wouldn’t you rather. . .?” In the case of Tina and Carlos, perhaps Tina might indirectly express her desire to see Carlos eat elsewhere by saying, “Wouldn’t you rather sit in the break room and eat that?” or “Isn’t it true that most people eat their lunches in the kitchen?” This might be more likely to get the message across to Carlos, but it certainly does not foster feelings of trust or acceptance between the two coworkers.
Aside from requiring extra effort on the part of the listener or recipient of the message, the lack of resolution in indirect communication has the potential to create longstanding issues.
As Heitler says, “With indirect communication, whatever was a problem today is likely to be a problem tomorrow, the next week, and still in five years.” This is largely because while the person communicating indirectly may feel as though his or her facial tics and spells of silence are getting the message across, such nonverbal expressions are often lost on the listener. Heitler adds, “The data given is insufficient, not enough information for the [listener] to be able to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.”
According to the University of Washington’s Organizational Behavior Resources, the “guessing games” that result from indirect communication are another significant block to meaningful communication. “Without direct, open patterns of communication, people cannot get to know each other successfully; what they do not know, they will make guesses about,” the site says. And this, of course, lays the groundwork for making inaccurate guesses as to what an indirect communicator is trying to say. Ultimately, having to analyze and infer the motives, meanings, and intentions of others discourages the growth of close relationships built on trust.
So, if talking things out directly tends to be the healthy, happy way to move through life, why do many people conceal their true thoughts and feelings in nonverbal expressions and cleverly crafted words and phrases?
Chances are, the majority of people have heard someone at some point say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” (Joyce 2012). Certain colloquial phrases become so commonplace that they simply become part of a culture’s vernacular, or common language. And in being spoken so widely and frequently, these words have a way of shaping common behaviors, including the ways in which cultures communicate.
Indirect communication is believed to be more prevalent in high-context cultures, which are known for emphasizing interdependence and social relationships. Being immersed in such an environment, people tend to develop “deep and often unconscious understandings of what is expected in that culture” (Joyce 2012). They develop a collective sense of what is right and wrong, acceptable and taboo.
Although culture is generally used in reference to a particular part of the world or ethnic group, subcultures arise within families, schools, workplaces, and social cliques. Each of these microcosms, while heavily influenced by the larger culture from which they originate, forms its own code of acceptable conduct. This, in turn, affects the styles of communication used.
For example, if it is seen as socially inappropriate to express anger or frustration in the classroom or workplace, the widespread tendency will be for people to deny and repress these feelings, or to find other, less direct modes of expression, such as talking behind others’ backs or acting out defiantly. Indirect communication may also be prevalent in situations where doing whatever it takes to maintain the status quo is accepted and even expected, usually with a great deal of “yes ma’am” and “yes sir.”
While the widespread biting of tongues and suppressing of individual wants and needs does maintain a façade of peace and pleasantry, the denied or repressed feelings will eventually make their way to the surface. This may come in the form of an outburst or uprising, or it may lead to projection, which is when people attribute their thoughts and emotions to those around them instead of acknowledging and expressing them as their own (Pfeiffer 1998).
Whether the reasons for indirect communication are cultural or personal, people who find it challenging to speak directly and honestly to those around them should understand that their elusive messages may not be perceived as expected. Regardless of the social dynamics and communication styles to which a person is accustomed, there will always be those who only understand and respond to direct communication.
Last updated: 11-5-2013