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It is strange that one of my close friends, who I know for years and have spent a lot of time in recreational activities, talks to me in very dry-professional language. It is a very minor thing, but it is kind of annoying me a little. For example, he would say "I would prefer to .." rather than simply saying "I want to ..". There is no language issue here, as he is fluent in English. We are not co-workers. Also, and he does not mirror me, because I don't talk in the professional language (even in professional settings).

Plus, he has a habit of talking as if he is giving a presentation at a workplace of some sort. For example, even in casual conversations, he would often not show any emotions, try his best to be perfect with the facts, no loose sentences, lots of apologies. When asked a question, just to continue the conversation, a question that does not have a definite answer, he would just say "I don't know", and close the conversation. For example, sometimes I try to have or continue the conversation by asking questions such as "so are you feeling hungry", and he would answer "I don't know". That would obviously be the end of that conversation.

In general, I am not a big fan of talking in the dry-professional language, so I don't like when my close friend talks like that. We definitely have a much closer friendship than coworkers generally have. So I am not sure why he does that. He does not have many close friends, and as I have seen, talks like that with them too. The only exception is when he is drunk, then he talks casually, like a normal person. When undrunk, he seems to live like a professional of some sort all the time. We have been close friends for many years. Although I sometimes feel only I am actively in this friendship, so it is sort of a one-sided friendship. I tend to be as accommodating as possible and try to match the "frequency" with him. But sometimes it is very frustrating to be around him.

I wonder if he has this persona because he tends to be deeply entrenched in his work and sort of an eccentric person. So far, I haven't confronted him to say that some of his behaviors are bothering me because I want to if I could find a subtle solution rather than putting him in the spot.

I wonder if anybody has any suggestions regarding how to subtly

  1. encourage him to speak more casually
  2. better ways to respond to his 'I don't know' statements
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  • 3
    Is it possible this person has some form of autism?
    – AsheraH
    Oct 16 at 10:52
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    @AsheraH, no he does not have autism.
    – user989761
    Oct 16 at 12:41
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    "Fluent in English" doesn't mean native English speaker, so possibly not raised in British or American culture. That can have a huge influence on how a person speaks and behaves. For someone from Finland for example "I don't know" is the exact right thing to say if they don't know something.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 16 at 12:55
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    Have you ever asked/considered asking something along the lines of "Do you speak so formally to everybody? Or just me?" If no, why not? If yes, what was the response?
    – Sarov
    Oct 18 at 13:23
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    @JulianaKarasawaSouza Now that I think about it. That might be the issue. My friend is from Belarus. I think you got the answer to my question. Would you wanna write an answer elaborating more also providing possible suggestions to deal with cultural differences?
    – user989761
    Nov 2 at 13:48
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The issue - cross-cultural communication

As you clarified that your friend is from a different country than you and therefore, not an English native speaker and not raised in the same culture as you, it looks like even though you (technically) speak the same language, you don't communicate in the same way. These subtle differences in style can be quite jarring if you're not aware of them and reading the communication from your own point of view

One of those differences is Direct X Indirect communication styles which is one of the classic topics studied in cross-cultural communication. Some sources refer to this as Low and High Context communication style

Cultures with a direct (or low context) communication style say what they mean with as fewer words as possible and the words are very frequently used in the literal sense.

Cultures with an indirect (or high context) communication style are all about reading between the lines. Not only the words matter, but tone, pauses, subtext, societal expectations.

This creates miscommunication and friction because, not being aware of those differences, an indirect communicator may think that a direct communicator is too casual, rude and perhaps a bit dumb for not picking up subtle clues they're laying around, and a direct communicator may think that an indirect communicator is too formal, two-faced, manipulative and stalling / wasting time.

In your example, you mention that your friend tends to use "I would prefer to" instead of "I want to", this is one of the classic indicators of an indirect communication style.

Outright saying "I want this" is too direct and in an indirect culture, saying the equivalent of this in the language is considered rude. The solution is to add those "markers" of politeness to "soften" the sentence, so it becomes "I would prefer this". They're stating their preference and expecting you to pick up on that clue.

Other indicator of this is evading certain types of questions, especially if the answer can be perceived as rude in their culture. Personal example: I was taught to never say "I'm hungry" when visiting someone, because it implies that the person is being a bad host and would prompt them to scramble for something for me to eat (so I'd be imposing on my host). If someone asked me "are you hungry?" when I was visiting them, I would definitely evade the question or respond with "not really" (throwing a clue that I could do with a snack)

You may be tempted to ask "why does he speak normally when drunk then?" Well, alcohol is great to eliminate social inhibitions, so that's your answer.

I can't speak much for Belarusian culture as I'm not acquainted with them, but the cultural axes on this paper do indicate that this can very well be the issue.

The solution

You have to build trust with him, let him know that it is ok if he speaks directly, and build a safe space. This will take time, though. Make him aware of this communication style difference and tell him that you might miss clues that he throws you, so it is better if he can be more direct with you and it will absolutely not offend you.

A few things you can do to "ease" communication with him (or someone else from an indirect culture):

  • Give context and ask "safe" questions

Instead of asking "Are you hungry?" you can ask "I'm getting a snack, do you want one too?" - in that case, you're signaling him that you're already going to grab yourself a snack and if he wants one, that's fine

  • Ask open-ended, non-leading questions and project that you're interested in the answer

Don't ask him "Did you have a nice weekend?" or "Did you do anything fun on the holiday?". Those questions prompt a diplomatic answer "It was nice". Ask him "What did you do on the weekend?" or "How was your holiday? What did you do?" (in quick succession. "How was your holiday?" is one of those questions that everyone expects it to be answered with "nice", in this case it just serves to give him context)


A few sources for further reading:

Whitepaper from University of Iowa - here

Article from Business Insider - here, or no paywall version from 12ft

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    Wow! an excellent answer. It really points out some of the very important things that I was not not aware of. Thank you very much @Juliana!
    – user989761
    Nov 5 at 13:50

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