Say It Like It Is

Anthropologists and Sociologists make a distinction between cultures that use an indirect style of communication and ones that use a direct style of communication. I like the way that this website explains the difference, so I’m going to quote them:

Direct communication is when the meaning of the message is communicated mainly via words.

Indirect communication is when meaning is not only in the words, but mainly in the surrounding context of a conversation. In other words, somebody who is indirect will leave it up to the listener to fill in the blanks and make out the meaning by correctly reading the contextual clues (e.g. non-verbal communication, status and/or age of people involved in the conversation, attire, etc.).

Before I spent time in Nepali, I thought of it as being a very indirect place. And from what I’ve heard about Asia as a whole, most cultures here supposedly employ indirect communication styles.

To an extent, it is true that things in Nepal are said in an indirect way. For instance, it’s rude to say no to something outright unless you have a very good reason. I have a good example of this. The organization that our friend works for was organizing a community cleanup the other day, and she and the other members went door-to-door around the neighborhood asking people if they would like to help. She was lamenting to us at lunch yesterday that although everyone would agree to help out when she met them face-to-face, she knew they weren’t going to come for the clean up, and very few of them did.

When I first visited Nepal in 2009, I thought almost everything would be expressed in an indirect way, in a style similar to the one mentioned in the example above. However, people can be surprisingly open and direct about certain things.

Weight is one of them. It’s pretty rude in the US to talk to people about their weight, except with close friends or family. Even then, it can be a touchy subject. But here, it’s completely the opposite. Everyone is always talking about how someone has lost or gained a few pounds. People talk about it with each other and say it directly to the person whose weight is being discussed. It can be strange or even offensive to people who aren’t used to discussing something that may seem so personal, but weight is not considered to be such a personal thing in Nepal. Discussing someone’s weight is also a way to show that you care about them. You might be concerned that they’ve lost some weight, maybe they’re sick or stressed out at work, and you show that concern by commenting on it.

I’ve gotten used to people commenting on weight, but I still find other, very direct comments pretty off-putting.

The other night, we were at dinner with some family we see very rarely. We were talking about water problems and how it’s important to treat or filter the water that comes from the tap. Buwa was asking two of the people (a mother and daugher-in-law) if they brush with the untreated water from their house tap, and they said yes.

“You can’t do that,” Buwa said. And then he added, while pointing to their teeth, “duijannako dant bigriyo,” translated as, “Both of you have damaged teeth.”

Their teeth did look kind of black, but I could never imagine pointing that out to them. Of course, Buwa’s relationship with them is very different than my relationship with them. He’s much closer to them than I am. But to me, that comment sounded so very direct! I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say something similar in English. I could imagine someone trying to torment another person by turning it into a gibe, but never could I see it said in good faith. Buwa was definitely saying it in good faith.

Another direct comment took me by surprise today. I had to go to the asthma doctor to get my medicine adjusted. I don’t know this man personally; I had never even met this guy before today (although he does know Tri). As I was getting up on the examination table, he asked, “How long have you two been married?” Tri exagerated a bit, answering with, “almost a year” (even though it’s only been about eight months).

The doctor replied by saying, “In Nepal, if you’ve been married a year and are not pregnant, people start asking questions.” He proceeded to give me an awkward eyebrow raise.

I think I turned bright red on the exam table. I’ve had other people ask me if I’m planning to have kids, but they’ve been very close to me and it has always happened in a private setting, not in a public exam room with about 10 other people in it! I guess he could have been more direct by saying, “Why aren’t you pregnant already?” Maybe I should thank him for his indirectness.

Would a doctor have said something like that to me in the US? I don’t think so. I’ve heard of women in the US being asked when they’re going to have kids, but only by other women they know.

This type of directness really catches me off guard sometimes. Will I ever get used to it?

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15 thoughts on “Say It Like It Is

  1. Whoa! The doctor episode seems atypical- at least for doctors. I have heard of relatives (mostly female) casually asking such ‘questions’, but I haven’t heard of strangers prying into such intimate issues.

  2. On the other side of the globe, when someone from Nepal comes to United States, they usually answer the formality questions like “how are you?”, “how (are) you doing?” with some long story from their life. They take compliments like “oh that sounds so interesting”, “i wanna go to Nepal”, “I would love to try your food” literally and do not know that people are just being nice to you.

  3. Good observations.. style of communication is really different between these places and stems from the cultural differences. In India, there is very little personal space that we have – so most topics can be discussed. But when it comes to sex and women and their associated taboos you cant talk about these directly as in the west – such as condoms.

  4. Similarly, in Indonesia, any comment about my others’ appearance (mostly weight and skin color) seems to be fair game. “You’re fatter,” or “You got paler.” And my students call each other “the fat one,” or “the black one.” And its all really matter-of-fact. I understand your frustration – it can be so awkward sometimes!!

  5. Ah– weight. As I mentioned in another comment, my sisters… and several of my extended relatives, are rounder than average, and it’s been an uphill battle to make sure my Nepali family doesn’t offend my American family. The 2005 incident of P’s dad calling one of my sister’s “fat” while they were sitting together in the back of the car is still a topic of conversation.

    In fact, every time I meet P’s dad at the airport the first thing he does is squeeze my arm and compliment me on how “fat” I’ve grown!

    Even at our wedding I overheard several Nepalis commenting on my larger relatives, something to the effect of, “Why are C’s relatives so fat? Why are they so big?” All I could hope for was that the Nepalis and Americans wouldn’t over hear each other to keep the peace!

  6. Oh this post made me laugh! Nepalis have to be the most direct people I know. There is no reading inbetween the lines with them. You poor thing having to face that nosy doctor. Yes the “fat” thing is something I experienced a lot over there. I would regularly hear people commenting on my weight and apparently it’s normal.

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