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).
Potential Difficulties of Indirect Communication
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?
Cultural Influences on Communication
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.
- Joyce, C. (2012, November). The impact of direct and indirect communication. Independent Voice. Retrieved from http://www.uiowa.edu/~confmgmt/documents/DIRECTANDINDIRECTCOMMUNICATION.pdf
- Pfeiffer, J. W. (1998). Conditions that hinder effective communication. In The Pfeiffer Library, Vol. 6, 2nd edition (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer). Originally published in J. E. Jones and J. W. Pfeiffer (Eds.), The 1973 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators (San Diego, CA: Pfeiffer & Company). Retrieved from http://home.snu.edu/~jsmith/library/body/v06.pdf
- University of Washington (UW). Indirect and direct communication. Organizational Behavior Resources, Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology. Retrieved from http://csde.washington.edu/~mbw/direct-and-indirect-communication.pdf
Last Updated: 08-10-2015
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RobinOctober 31st, 2014 at 8:06 AM
How do you bring awareness into indirect communication?
VitskyFebruary 1st, 2017 at 11:06 AM
Be direct with the indirection
LeoDecember 24th, 2017 at 12:09 PM
Practice I guess. If you spend time with people that drop hints, use body language to communicate, etc. You eventually get it.
For example I’ve noticed that when a person gives me an excuse that is hard to believe, it usually means a NO.
SacNavMarch 5th, 2015 at 8:25 PM
“How do you bring awareness into indirect communication?”
MarilynMarch 9th, 2016 at 4:45 PM
Can you give me a list of some indirect nonverbal communication? I don’t understand them.
LeoDecember 24th, 2017 at 12:13 PM
Rolling up your eyes 🙄 means disapproval.
Turning your back to somebody: I don’t want to talk to you. Leave me alone.
Making faces: Impatience.
Open your eyes 👀 wide: Hey! What are you doing?
PeteOctober 12th, 2016 at 11:46 PM
Nice article, I am the type who likes to directly communicate. At work I hold in my anger and I exploded. Everyone at work would speak to me indirectly and it would piss me off, so I would just take everything they say literally.
For example, my supervisor would say stupid things like “it’s okay to make mistakes”
So I made some mistakes and didn’t think anything of it, and then he got really pissed off. So what he really meant to say to me was “It’s not okay to make mistakes”.
I don’t respect people who won’t talk to me directly, I’m plenty intelligent to read between the lines most of the time, but since I don’t respect them for being cowards, I purposely misinterpret what they said, and there is nothing they can do about it, because they purposely made their message vague, and I don’t appreciate having to put in extra effort to communicate. Indirect communication takes much more effort, and is full of expectations, it’s a stupid deceitful game that dishonest people play.
LeoDecember 24th, 2017 at 12:21 PM
That’s a LOT of judgment. I know because I used to be like you and I was always mad at them. Something that has worked for me iz: They have problems to communicate, therefore they drop hints, let me try to understand what are they trying to say.
Boom! No more anger. They actually have problems to communicate because they think they are upfront they can hurt your feelings. And sometimes it really happens.
SommerAugust 22nd, 2017 at 6:31 AM
I must certainly grew up with the phrase “if you cant say something nice don’t say anything at all”. Repressing your true thoughts and feelings to spare others’ feelings leads to a lot of issues, namely mistrust. I’m not trying to be deceitful when I say something that is often the opposite of what I mean, I’m generally only trying to avoid conflict and unrest. However, being with a partner who is a direct communicator, my avoidance and subversive methods are always counterproductive. After being married for 14 years I still can’t seem to learn how to communicate properly with my husband because my thought processes and misperceptions are so ingrained. I’m extremely passive aggressive, yet even when my husband points it out I can’t see it or won’t see it until we’ve argued for hours and hes finally coaxed my true feelings out of me.
LeoDecember 24th, 2017 at 12:40 PM
I think that’s exactly what bothers him: Not saying your true feelings.
I guess you are like my sister, she thinks she can hurt my feelings if she really tells me what she thinks, even when I ask her a very direct question. She then tells me a white lie to save face and don’t “hurt my feelings “ if she tells me what she really thinks. When I see her doing what she REALLY wants to do I say to myself: She lied to me!!!! Why wasn’t she honest? Until I realized her game of not being upfront because she doesn’t want to “hurt my feelings”. She wouldn’t! That’s something she doesn’t understand. My first reaction is getting mad because she didn’t tell me the “truth”. Then I have to pause and think why she didn’t do it. It’s not easy, there’s a lot of reading between the lines, involved.
LeoDecember 24th, 2017 at 11:21 AM
Even though I can see the good intentions behind some white lies and/or ridiculous excuses of not hurt your feelings being too straight forward, what bothers me is the game of guessing: Did I guess correctly or I didn’t? Did I get the hint? It was a hint?
It is tiresome! I really believe you can be straight forward and delicate and the same time. When I learn she/he LIED to me to “spare my feelings” I feel betrayed and can’t trust the person anymore.
Honestly, I’d like to be an Indirect Communicator as well to really empathize and understand them, but I am not. I really appreciate a clear communication, nevertheless a lot of people out there in the real world drop hints, make faces, use body language, tell white lies to “communicate” their ideas.
JudieJuly 18th, 2018 at 9:16 AM
You state in your article, “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.” However, I find that this indirect communication can actually cause tension and unrest. My mother is a very indirect communicator, and I am a very direct communicator. I am frequently baffled by her indirect communication, which causes a great deal of tension. For example, if she needs me to take her to the bank, she’ll just say arbitrarily, “I need to go to the bank.” She won’t ask me to take her to the bank. She’ll just put it out there in the universe. Most of the time I respond with, “Do you want me to take you to the bank?” But I’m getting tired of this game. I don’t think it’s rude to come out and simply ask, “Could you please take me to the bank?” Is there any way that indirect communicators can learn to be more direct, especially when dealing with direct communicators. Like you state above, “…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.” So, if I just play dumb because I don’t know what my mom wants, or I don’t respond the way she wants me to, she gets mad. I am not a mind reader, so this game of “Guess what Mom wants” drives me bananas.
LeoJuly 18th, 2018 at 9:39 AM
I think it is a huge mistake wanting to change them, they could say the same about us, direct communicators. As a matter of fact indirect communicators think we are rude because we are straight forward.
I think the only solution is ACCEPT them the way they are and to know that we will have to guess because they won’t say anything directly. If we desire them to be different we will suffer a lot.
It caught my attention that you and your mom communicate in different ways, even though you guys are family, interesting!
TracyJune 26th, 2020 at 9:14 AM
I don’t mind adapting to either, I’m foremost a direct communicator but can slip into indirect just as well.
I find it so frustrating though in my circumstance how indirect communication that causes miscommunication and therefore problems that said problems are then only swept under the rug because the indirect communicator wants to keep the peace and chooses to flat out lie about whatever the argument was about instead of choosing an uncomfortable moment to talk it out. This is a problem that I cannot get around and I find myself separate from my partner due to a result indirectly connected to his indirect communication and my prominent need for direct communication, if that makes sense to anyone but me. This would happen between us again and again. The part that really hurts is that I really believe that he does in his own way love and care for me but I can’t accept his way of sweeping everything under the rug and continuing in his indirect communication that will only cause more problems on top of existing ones because of miscommunication. And yes, we’ve gone to therapy.
What really gets me going is how in the same time frame he will ask me why it is I get so mad, insist that nothing he’s done was that bad, and apologize for what I go through, saying he understands why I get so mad and it all just confounds me so much. I feel like there could be something I’m missing but I can’t get past the inconsistencies, I can’t get past the lies, the keeping the peace, the indirectness. The meanwhile he just wants to move on with life and just forget about it, maybe it’ll solve itself….
On one hand I feel as if he does love and care for me in his own way but that I can’t accept that way because there’s no resolution thus far, no seeing eye to eye. Is rather be unhappy without him than live the rest of my life in this seemingly unending challenge with him. Still, I would love for us to be able to see eye to eye and so I take opportunities to put our situation out there in the universe hoping it will bring about a resolution maybe through somebody else’s eyes?
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