International Student Services

Direct and Clear Communication

One of the first things that you may notice in talking with Americans is that they do not like interruptions. One person speaks, then another replies.

Because the American view is that "time" is limited and tasks must be accomplished, the language favors direct and clear communication. Sentences are often simple and factual. Extensive descriptions and allusions to history or books may make some Americans impatient. Children are told "get to the point", "just say what you mean." In a business environment, this idea is often phrased as "just get to the bottom line, we don't need all the details, just get to the bottom line!"

Often, American conversations tend to be search for information. Americans ask a lot of questions, and they are very direct. If the answer to a request is no, generally Americans will simply reply "No." They may add a brief explanation as to why they are declining the request, but "no" does mean "no." The answer of "no" does not mean that it is time to start negotiating. Such a direct answer is done without any sign of embarrassment. It is simply communicating a piece of information.

It is important to note that Americans will expect everyone to communicate in a similar way. They are likely to miss subtle clues and indirect messages because they don't expect them and are not accustomed to them. People will not hesitate to ask questions if they want information.

Classroom Communication

In a classroom environment, instructors often view questions as a sign of interest in the material being presented. If an instructor's requirements are not clear, it is the responsibility of the student to ask questions to clarify the matter. Children are taught that there are no stupid questions, moreover, they learn that it is important to ask questions when they don't understand. Asking for further information is perceived as a positive action showing that the person asking the question wants to learn.

It is not just words!

But communication isn't entirely about words; it also includes physical elements, sometimes called body language. An element of the direct American style is the practice of looking directly at someone when conversing. American children are taught to look at the person speaking, to make eye contact. A parent tells a child, "Look at me when I'm talking to you!" It is considered a sign of respect and an indication that one is listening carefully. Looking away, at the floor, at one's hands is considered a sign of disrespect for the person talking. It can even be interpreted as a lack of interest in what is being said.

What can I talk about?

One might expect that, in an environment where directness is valued in communication, all topics are appropriate for conversation. That is not really true. Some topics that are generally discussed with acquaintances or those one does not know well:

  • The weather
  • One's commuting experience and cars
  • Classes and jobs
  • Sports
  • Music, movies
  • Fashion, shopping, and clothes

Topics not to discuss unless you know the people well:

  • Money, how much one earns
  • Family
  • Religion

Americans often use humor to make their points or to diffuse uncomfortable situations. Humor frequently relies on shared experiences and understanding that a newcomer may lack. That may lead to misunderstandings.