The world is divided into circular and linear communicators. Which one are you?

Sometimes you have to adjust your communication style.
Sometimes you have to adjust your communication style.
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One day, my daughter wasn’t feeling well, so I took her to the doctor. Wanting the receptionist to take me seriously, I started the conversation by listing all possible symptoms my daughter had: A fever, a cough, a congested nose.

After I was done with the litany, the receptionist asked: “So what do you want?”

I was stunned. Hadn’t I just taken care to explain everything to her in great detail?

Before I moved to the Netherlands, I thought I was well prepared to deal with the challenges of interacting with different cultures. Born and raised in Poland, I’d also lived in Canada and Germany, and managed each move with relative ease.

But the Netherlands threw me for a loop. My biggest struggle was, and still is, with Dutch directness.

Time after time, I find myself taken aback by this cultural trait. Another day, I was with my family at the playground. My husband was watching our toddler while I was nursing the baby. Suddenly a woman sat down next to me and said, “I think it’s really important that you breastfeed.” I know many women would feel validated by this comment, given how controversial nursing in public has become. But I was surprised to get parenting advice from a stranger, and particularly while I have one breast whipped out and am trying to get a fussy baby to feed.

In attempting to navigate the cultural divide, I’ve found the theory of communication put forth in the 1994 book When Cultures Collide, by the linguist Richard Lewis, particularly useful. According to Lewis, there are two kinds of communicators—“circular” and “linear” ones.

Circular communicators start with lighter topics such as the weather, then slowly get to the point. According to Eleonore Breukel, a trainer in intercultural communication, this seems to be the preferred communication style in most cultures around the world. And it’s the way I talk, too. “You are obviously a circular communicator,” she told me.

But in the Netherlands, people tend to be “linear communicators.” This means they jump right to their main point at the beginning of a conversation. Only after that has been discussed do they move on to other topics.

This is the case both in personal and professional settings. “In the Netherlands, when you’re going to be fired, the HR manager will immediately say, ‘Sit down. I have to tell you that there will be new opportunities for you because the company cannot have you anymore,’ or something like that,” said Breukel. There are obvious benefits to cutting to the chase: it’s straightforward, and less likely to lead to misunderstandings and awkward situations.

But while Dutch directness is renowned in business settings, it can sometimes lead to problems. The Dutch will speak out against their boss publicly, “which is a career killer,” said Egbert Schram, CEO of Hofstede Insights, an organization that offers cross-cultural coaching and training. In other words, just because the Dutch style of communication is more direct doesn’t mean that directness is appropriate in every setting.

The Dutch like to see themselves as an egalitarian society that treats everyone equally, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion. As a result, anything that points at power imbalances or status is considered taboo.

Moreover, as Breukel explains, “Many foreigners in the Netherlands say the Dutch are not so direct because they never say anything. They expect that if you want to know something, you’ll ask. Why give information that that person already knows?” I found this to be true when I was pregnant: My midwife wouldn’t tell me anything unless I specifically asked about it.

While it’s always good to avoid over-simplifying or over-generalizing a given culture, I’ve found the distinction between linear and circular communication helps me better navigate my daily dealings with the Dutch. Breukel advised me to always get straight to the point: “Say what you want and then it’s out there. You can talk about different things but the person knows what you came here for,” she said. In business settings, it’s important not to flood Dutch people with information. “That’s what circular people do. They give all that information and the Dutch get lost. We can’t process that,” she explained.

I started following Breukel’s advice. At the doctor, I start by asking the assistant to give me an appointment before explaining why I need it. I no longer try to make small talk with receptionists or shopkeepers, and simply let them know what I’m looking for.

While I miss having a little chit-chat before getting to the point, I find this type of communication very quick and efficient. When I follow the guidelines of linear communication, I get much better results. And it’s not really that hard, because there is a script to it. Compared to circular communication, which offers many potential ways of opening a conversation, linear communication offers only one way: Getting to the point.

For organizations and employees dealing with the Dutch at work, Schram’s advice is to make communication extremely explicit. Even within the same company, “if you switch from marketing to production you enter a totally different environment. And people assume that because it’s the same company it plays by the same rules,” he said.

Even as others change their communication styles to accommodate the Dutch, outside cultural influences may be reshaping the way the Dutch converse. Dutch cities such as The Hague and Amsterdam are home to countless international organizations, companies, and institutions, many of which have different communication patterns. “Culture is always changing,” said Breukel. “In 25 years, we will be less direct than we are now.”