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Direct and Indirect Communication With Your International Student

As in any relationship, so much of a student and...



November 24, 2020

host family having coffee together

As in any relationship, so much of a student and host family's ability to get along comes down to communication. Especially in the first few months as everyone is getting to know each other, communication is vital to setting expectations and gaining trust.

But when families and students come from different cultural backgrounds, good communication is not quite so easy or straightforward.

In this post, we'll zero in on two communication styles that are typical of many Eastern and Western communicators. As nearly all of the students in SRS Concierge's programs are from Asia, we see the differences between these two styles very commonly play out in misunderstandings between host families and their students.

Direct vs. Indirect Communication

In the individualistic societies of the West, including the U.S., we tend to value direct communication. Each person is responsible to get their point across and we generally want to do it as concisely and efficiently as possible. We don't mind putting people on the spot or probing until we get a straightforward response that provides an answer to whatever we're asking. In many Eastern, "high context," and "honor/shame" cultures however, communication is more indirect. The goal is to maintain harmony and avoid tension or conflict, politeness takes priority over honesty, and the true meaning or intent of the speaker is supposed to be inferred by the listener by paying attention to any number of context clues.

You can see how both styles have their pros and cons but can also come into conflict when two parties are each using different communication styles.

Real-World Application

In homestay situations, we see this play out in many ways. For example, a host parent might ask their student if they're okay eating leftovers for their lunches every day. The foreign student seems a little nervous but enthusiastically that it's fine. Later, the host parents find out that their student is actually very unhappy with having to eat leftovers for lunch.

What's Happening Here?

The host parent thought they were asking a simple question and their goal was getting information so they'd know how to proceed and do what the student wants. For the student, however, the goal had nothing to do with information and had more to do with honoring their host and avoiding any tension or conflict that might be created by saying "no."

Host family having a conversationBoth sides are trying to show respect toward the other person, but they go about it in very different ways. Merely recognizing these differences can go a long way in helping a student and host family communicate with each other and be sensitive and flexible to each other's ways of showing respect and conveying information.

For further reading on this topic, you can visit this article by Cynthia Joyce of the University of Iowa. In it, she expands on the ideas presented in this post along with some practical suggestions for direct and indirect communicators. 

What about you? Have you seen these styles of communication play out in misunderstandings with your host family or student? We'd love to hear your stories and insight! If this is something you are currently struggling with, contact your SRS representative today! We are here to support you through these communication difficulties!