Don’t be so British: Why being direct is vital in business

Take a leaf from The Bridge’s Saga Noren: a moment of embarrassment is better than a lifetime avoiding the truth
Everything works better and faster when we all know where we stand

INTRODUCING the two closest people in her life for the first time, the formidable detective Saga Norén from the Danish drama The Bridge said: “This is Martin, he is staying with me because his wife kicked him out for cheating. This is Anton, we have sex from time to time.”

Does this sound too direct? Not to me: I wish more people communicated so clearly. Instead, during my long career in this country, I have learned to crack codes and puzzles. If the features editor of this newspaper says that my article is “interesting”, I know I need to re-write it. If a client says that my work “needs some improvement”, I know I am about to be fired. “Excellent” and “brilliant” mean “OK”. “We will consider working with you again” means “we will never return your calls”. Why insult someone’s intelligence like this?

One of the common answers is politeness. Directness, as the argument goes, is for the socially inept. This is rubbish. Directness is a great way to do business, as everything works better and faster and everyone knows where they stand.

In this country, directness is still an oddity, usually used as the last resort. It has certainly cost me dearly. When I once wrote to a chief executive, arguing that his speech did not reflect what he wanted to say, I did not get promoted. Instead, I should have told him that his draft was excellent, but needed a few “adjustments”, which is PR code for “truly awful”.

There is a general belief that the British get opaque communication instinctively. In reality, they are as confused as everyone else. “You spend so many hours in the gym, you will look great on your wedding day”, I heard a PR partner once say to a young (British) colleague, leaving the latter wondering whether it was a genuine compliment or a call to spend more time in the office.

Another argument against directness is that things are generally not black and white. Sometimes they are. I was once told in a review that my performance was “mostly fine”. A month later I was fired. My boss obviously did not want to hurt my feelings during the review – but being sacked did the job. In this case, his lack of directness was beyond ineffective – it was dishonest.

There is also a clear difference between being direct and being rude. Directness has a purpose, it is constructive, it never aims to undermine or insult. Whereas rudeness aims to do just that. The other day, when I told someone that I was a consultant, he asked if that was code for unemployed. Was there a point to that question, apart from the sarcasm?

Years ago, when I was still learning English, I sounded direct for the simple reason that I knew fewer words. So instead of saying “the document is not quite there yet”, I would say “the document is poor”. Now I know English very well indeed, but I still speak like this. I prefer it. It gets the point across. It is effective. It is honest. And no one usually gets offended.

Finally, was Saga’s introduction of Martin and Anton too blunt? The fact is, they would have found out the truth about each other soon enough. So why not straight away? Saga’s directness caused a moment of embarrassment, but after that Martin and Anton’s friendship had a real base.

Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director.

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