Direct, not polite: why straight-talking wins in the workplace

By Anna Brech

The Dutch have a form of straight-talking in the workplace, which, to the average mild-mannered Brit, sounds mildly terrifying.

“Bespreekbaarheid”, as BBC Travel explains, means speakability; the notion that there are no taboos, and everything can and should be talked about.

“I think the Netherlands are a place where… no-one is going to pretend. [For example], when you say something in a business meeting that is not a very smart suggestion, people will always point it out,” says Ben Coates, author of Why the Dutch Are Different.

This creates “the sense that people have the right to say whatever they want and be as direct as they want. And if other people don’t like that, it’s their fault for getting offended.”

Rude? Perhaps so. But in one of the politest nations on earth (Brits are twice as likely as Americans to use the word “please” in corporate emails), “Bespreekbaarheid” also sounds wonderfully refreshing.

Here’s what we can learn from the Dutch and their ability to say it like it is:

Make more money

career break

It’s easy to think that a fair smattering of “please” and “thank you” simply greases the wheels of a happy office. But the truth is more complicated than that.

Politeness is linked to a tendency to hold back on our opinions and frustrations – which in turn, could be costing us millions in the workplace. One recent study found that we’re so polite, 20% of us wouldn’t challenge a client over unpaid work. A similar amount wouldn’t question a fraudulent expense, or haul someone up for spending too long at lunch.

So, far from costing nothing, good manners are actually rather expensive; a problem that “bespreekbaarheid” would surely solve.

Learn to ask questions

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Politeness is corrosive in other ways, too.

A ground-breaking survey found that working-class students lose out to their middle-class peers in the States because they’re “too polite” to put their hands up at school. These children, the researchers said, “worried about making teachers mad or angry if they asked for help at the wrong time or in the wrong way”.

This reluctance was sparked not by their teachers, but their parents. Politeness, in other words, is learned and it can hold us back. Being direct, however, will mostly get you what you want.

Forget likeability

Good manners are closely linked to likeability, something that’s caught up in the mire of gender politics.

“What our society teaches young girls, and I think it’s also something that’s quite difficult for even older women and self-professed feminists to shrug off, is that idea that likeability is an essential part of you,” says feminist and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This desire to be liked, she says, means that “you’re supposed to hold back sometimes… If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story.”

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Being direct would help to break the perfect storm of polite, likeable and sorry that many women fall into in the workplace. At a time when the gender pay gap stands at 18.1% in the UK, and there are more men called John leading FTSE 100 firms than women altogether,  that can only be a good thing.

Save precious time


Office life in Britain seems to revolve around a nuanced dance of small talk and conflict avoidance; there are so many unwritten rules of communication.

I know from my own personal experience that it’s hard to write a work message without sprinkling it with a liberal helping of “please”, “thank you” and “would you mind if…”

“Set phrases that signal that ‘I’m doing this the right, polite way’ are more important in British culture,” says Dr Lynne Murphy from the University of Sussex, who conducted a study on the topic.

The Dutch concept of bluntness saves on all this dilly-dallying. They don’t tiptoe around in circles at meetings, caveating everything they say to avoid hurt feelings.

Direct talkers literally use less words and time to get to the point. They simply say what they mean, and in doing so, get sh*t done. Efficient, no?

Get rid of hierarchy


Direct talk is a central facet of the Netherlands’ famously egalitarian work culture. The Dutch aren’t keen on power relationships or pulling rank; or, in fact, anything that might hint at inequality in the workplace.

This relatively flat hierarchy means that you can say what you want, with no fear of consequence. Everyone’s opinion counts.

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As one visitor who worked in the Netherlands pointed out: “I experienced occasions where a junior staff openly questioned and criticised his boss’s idea and surprisingly he did not even seem irritated by it at all.”

Being direct helps to foster an open atmosphere where ideas and constructive criticism are welcome; a genius approach given autonomy in the workplace is a key element of happiness and productivity.

Become more authentic


Reciprocal politeness is a bit like a cushion; it’s a buffer to keep everyone happy and the world running smoothly. And yet, you can get too comfortable. Being overpolite can make you appear weak and insincere – and it gets in the way of saying what you mean, too.

“When clarity conflicts with politeness, in most cases … politeness supersedes. It is considered more important to avoid offence than to achieve clarity,” writes linguistics professor Robin Lakoff, in a book about socially acceptable language.

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Being direct, on the other hand, is a synonym for honesty. Even on TV, characters who shoot from the hip are eminently powerful: think Erin Brockovich (also a real-life muse), or Scandal’s Olivia Pope.

Saying what you mean creates trust, even if it’s something that other people don’t want to hear.

Encourage conflict


Avoiding conflict is a major motivation behind our penchant for politeness; but this assumes that butting heads is always a bad thing. And that’s not always the case.

“Clients sometimes tell us that their biggest problem is the lack of conflict in their organisations,” Robert McHenry, chief executive of business psychology consultancy OPP, tells the FT. “They say that autocratic senior leaders create a culture where people prefer to ‘keep their head down’ and not offer feedback or ideas; the anticipation of conflict inhibits performance.”

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This creates an atmosphere where frustrations bubble away beneath the surface, becoming far more toxic than if they were just aired to begin with. Direct talk brings everything out into the open and blitzes the tendency to “water-cooler whingeing”. Yes it can feel uncomfortable if you’re not used to it, but it’s far healthier than muddling through and keeping a lid on resentments.

How to get started


For anyone who likes manners as much as I do, being direct is a challenge.

Start by being as concise as possible in the way that you talk. Avoid the temptation to apologise or over-explain your point of view. Maintain eye contact, and keep your body language open and stay calm.

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It’s worth considering that most of us overestimate how assertive we’re really being; so even if you feel like you’re being incredibly blunt, that’s probably not the case. It won’t always be easy, but remember, progress comes from difficult conversations. If you accept the potential for awkwardness, so much the better.

Straight-talking doesn’t necessarily mean losing the politeness. Just don’t let it obscure what you’re trying to say.

Photos: Shutterstock


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