When A Lie Is Not A Lie

If you haven't read The Dirty Room: A Cross-Cultural Communication Riddle, this post is a follow up. 

I was recounting the dirty room story to my mom once when Billy overheard and jumped in: "Oh, the mom is totally asking them to clean up the room."

We both stared at him. "How did you know that?" I asked him.

He looked at me dumbfounded. "It's obvious. She asking them politely."

I have to admit, when I was first drawn into this situation, I had a hard time understanding the host mother's position. After all, if she wanted the girls to clean the room, why didn't she just ask? I thought the request was totally appropriate, but the "roundabout" method muddied the waters.

"She did ask!" Billy assured me. "It's very clear. She just didn't want to embarrass the girls or make them feel like they were dirty."

"But they were dirty."

He laughs. "Yeah, but she's not going to say that. They're her guests, too. She asked that way to protect their feelings." Or as some savvy commenters noted on the original post, to "save face."

It absolutely stunned me how Billy immediately and passionately knew exactly what the host mom was communicating beneath the words. Many Asian cultures utilize indirect communication to approach touchy topics. Similarly, Guatemalans often favor indirect communication styles as well.

Sometimes my whole life feels like a cross-cultural communication riddle.

A Guatemalan Would Never Have Asked Me That

Once Billy and I were with a group of non-Latino U.S. friends. In the course of conversation, someone asked for Billy's help on a project, and he happily agreed. When we left, Billy was livid.

He was appalled that he had been asked to help in this specific way, and he listed the reasons, which were common knowledge among this group of people. I was dumbfounded. "Um... if you didn't want to do it, why didn't you say 'no'?"

"That would be so rude!" he bemoaned. I was even more confused. Finally, he got to the crux of the matter. "I am not supposed to have to say no. They were supposed to know not to ask given what they already know about this situation." Oh dear. "A Guatemalan would never have asked me that," he added.

That encounter blew my mind and opened my eyes to some of these fundamental differences in the ways we communicate.

Because you know what's rude to me? When people say 'yes' to something when they really want to say 'no.' Or worse, saying 'yes' when they have no intention of following through because they really mean 'no,' but I didn't get the memo. In other words, I'm not interpreting all the signals.

This article does a great job of sharing examples in business where communication differences confuse working relationships. The 'yes' and 'no' subtleties are also common in Japan. The article says, "When the Japanese need to reply in the negative - whether it's to refuse, decline, disagree, or just say 'no' - it is fraught with subtlety and nuance. Fortunately (actually, more like intentionally, and by design), the Japanese have a small arsenal of non-verbal cues they can use."

In my years of living with a Guatemalan, I have gotten much better and reading the indirect clues. I still have no idea how to communicate indirectly. In fact, like the good, direct American girl I am, I am often sending texts in all caps: "WHY DO YOU EAT ALL THE CRACKERS AND PUT THE EMPTY BOX BACK IN THE PANTRY? I HAVE BEEN BETRAYED!!!!" Subtle is my middle name.

All Guatemalans Are Liars?

In the case of the dirty room, some of my students really struggled with the feeling that they had been lied to. The direct communicator in me empathizes, as well as my Evangelical background which places great importance on honesty.

But is it really a lie when your listeners understand what you're saying? If this mom had been talking to Billy, he wouldn't have felt lied to. He got the message loud and clear.

Billy and I once listened to an American missionary who lives and works in Guatemala say that all Guatemalans are liars. (I guess her direct nature had no problem saying this to Billy?)

As he and I reflected on this statement later, Billy said to me, "Guatemalans are so polite that to say 'no' to your face is like the worst thing ever. Even after all these years living in Guate, she has not learned how to read what people are saying. She hasn't learned the language."

Translating Subtext

When living cross-culturally, we have to truly learn the language, which can be so much more than vocabulary. We must sometimes yield our own communication styles and preferences to truly listen to what the other person is saying in his own way. Easier said than done, I totally get that.

Even now, there are times I totally can't get it. I'll look at Billy and ask, "What are you saying to me right now?" It's a learning process, to be sure.

Shout out to many of you who chimed in on Facebook and in the comments of the riddle. You all saw right through what was happening in our scenario. The mystery of the dirty room? Solved!

How have you seen communication extend beyond the actual words?

Image credit: Kevin O'Mara 
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  1. Jessie Lewis1:58 PM

    I never comment, but this is so useful to be enlightened to.

    My non-English speaking Colombian aunt is staying at my home for a while. This post has just made me aware that some of the things she does may be ways she is communicating. Such a useful lesson.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jessie! It encourages me to know that the post was helpful for you! :)

  3. I struggle with this, because even after knowing my husband for 17 years, we still miscommunicate on a regular basis because of this direct/subtle issue. I will be completely direct with him and he thinks there's subtext when there isn't. He will be subtle with me, and I will just wish he was direct. In the past I've begged & pleaded with him to be direct with his parents over certain issues but now realize that this isn't the best way to go with them. His parents are both masters of subtle "asking/telling" and I sometimes find that the things they are "really saying" are highly offensive (As in: if you don't like my food, don't make indirect insults about my cooking, just don't say anything at all! or how I keep house, etc.). I find that subtle subtext can be used to be polite or it can be really manipulative/hurtful, so there are of course 2 sides to how it's done, and I think a lot of that can be dependent on the individual, too.

  4. These are really good points, Abby. Indirect communication, like direct styles, can be used to be polite or unfortunately in the examples you gave, to be rude as well. It's interesting that you mentioned your husband assumes there is subtext to your directness. I never thought about that before! Of course, when I'm text shouting about crackers, the subtext is "bring home more crackers!" but that message never seems to be received! :)

  5. Katie5:57 PM

    Oh, yes. So much of this goes on in Mexico. Sometimes I understand the message, but I'm sure there are just as many times where I have no clue. Oops. :)

  6. Bah, we're just Americans with completely opposite personalities and this happens all.the.time. Like last night for one. Interpreting what someone else is saying is never an easy thing.

  7. I'm with you, Katie. Sometimes I wonder how much I've missed! :)

  8. Absolutely. Communication is not about just speaking words. :)


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