Esther – The Queen of Indirect Communication
The book of Esther is a fascinating book in the Bible. It is the story of an orphaned girl from a subjugated people, who became the king of Persia’s primary wife and saves her people from destruction. If you have time, read it before continuing this article. It’s only 10 chapters long, all storytelling. For extra bonus points, read 1 Samuel 15 as well, as that is where the plot begins.
The whole story breathes a Power/Fear worldview with Honor/Shame mixed in. Yet it is the Communication Dimension we will focus on in this article, contrasting the two heroines, Queen Vashti and Queen Esther.
The story of Queen Esther (Esther 1-4)
When Ester became queen (after Queen Vashti was deposed), Mordechai, her cousin who raised her, became a fairly high ranking official in King Ahasuerus’ court. Around the same time, Haman a higher ranking official at the king’s court, became the favorite servant of the king. Haman was an Agagite, which was an Amelekite clan. One of Mordechai’s ancestors was the brother of King Saul. 600 years prior, King Saul had captured the ancestor of Haman, King Agag and killed many of his clan. After his capture, King Agag was killed by the prophet Samuel (I Sam. 15). In many Honor/Shame-oriented societies, these kinds of events are not forgotten but passed on to future generations. (1)
When Haman was made the king’s favorite servant, all the commoners and lower servants were ordered to pay honor to him (e.g. by kneeling or bowing down). Mordechai refused to kneel or pay extra honor to Haman. In retaliation and after learning Mordechai’s ancestry, Haman persuaded the king to have all the Jews murdered. However, Haman didn’t know that Queen Esther was also a Jew.
Mordechai urges Esther, who was oblivious to this decree, to plead with the king and seek mercy for the Jewish people. She is very hesitant, as she hasn’t been called into the king’s presence for a month (she lived in her own, separate palace) and walking into the king’s room without an invitation could have grave consequences.
The example of Queen Vashti, who was deposed and punished for refusing to dance naked before the king and his party/council of nobility, all half-drunk, still loomed large (Esther 1). Vashti had little time or choice than to be direct in her communication, refusing to do something that was below her status and rank as the queen. In that era and culture, this type of entertainment was done by harem girls and concubines, not by the queen. (See e.g. Daniel 5, where the queen is strikingly absent from a similar party.)
Vashti chose her honor and dignity over her life and refuses to come before the king. The king feels put on the spot by her refusal and directness and banishes her from his presence. (We don’t know if she was just stripped of her royalty and wealth or executed, but the later was very likely.) (2)
The Communication Dimension
Let’s pause and talk for a bit about direct and indirect communication, the two polarities of the Communication Dimension of the Cultural Mapping Inventory (CMi). Both have their place and, obviously, direct communication and effective communication are not synonymous.
In Power/Fear oriented worldviews, the one who is higher in hierarchy typically uses more direct communication, and the one who is lower in hierarchy uses more indirect communication.
In Direct Communication, the message is in the words that are being said (or written). Non-verbal communication plays a lesser role but is used to interpret the emotions and attitude behind the message. It is typically linear in its reasoning, issue centered and can come across as blunt and confrontational. Direct Communication is usually very intentional.
In Indirect Communication on the other hand, the words being said are merely used to massage the relationship and make sure the other party will not be shamed and offended in public. Many times, the real topic is not mentioned at all. The message is in the tone of voice, in the examples and proverbs used, in the non-verbal language, and sometimes even in the way the venue where the message is delivered is arranged, etc., etc. There is more third-party language and sometimes the message is conveyed by a third person altogether. The reasoning in indirect communication may seem circular and can come across as avoiding confrontation. However, Indirect Communication is also very intentional.
Queen Esther using Indirect Communication (Esther 5-9)
Mordechai asked Esther to go into the throne room and ask the king to change the law and have mercy on them and their people. A rather direct approach. Esther hesitantly agreed to go plead with the king but approached the situation in an indirect way, avoiding some of the pitfalls that former Queen Vashti couldn’t due to lack of time and opportunity.
Indirect Communication takes more time
Instead of just walking into the throne room and asking, Esther takes multiple days to make this one request. Five days including three days of fasting to prepare. (Esther 4:16-5:1)
Appearance and setting are important
Queen Esther doesn’t just go into the king’s court in her everyday clothes but pays attention to her appearance and dresses up in her royal robes to honor the king with her appearance and make his heart favorable to her. (Esther 5:1)
Indirect Communication feeds off the response of the other
When she went to the king, Queen Esther didn’t barge into the throne room but waited at the entrance to give the king time to notice her and waits for his response. Another step of honoring/respecting the king, waiting from afar instead of just barging into the room.
It worked as Esther found favor in his eyes and he extended his scepter to her as a sign of approval. (Esther 5:1-2)
Indirect Communication is mindful of the context, who else is in the room
The king told Esther to ask whatever she wants and he will grant it to her. She secured his benevolence but doesn’t reveal her request yet. Instead she moved the conversation to a more private location and invited the king for a banquet in her house. This way, whatever is discussed and how it’s discussed is not done in front of the king’s advisors and nobility, and is less likely to bring shame or embarrassment on the king. It’s now a private discussion instead of a public one. She did invite Haman as well, which was actually a bold move. (Esther 5:3-4)
Indirect Communication prepares the person for receiving the message
By inviting the king to a banquet, Esther showed him that her request was important. When she didn’t ask her request right away, the king got a clue that the request was sensitive and important to her. She also raised his curiosity by not revealing any clues to her request.
Next, God steps in to influence the king’s opinion of Esther’s people, the Jews. (Though I believe He was intentionally involved in the other parts as well.) The king had a sleepless night. Maybe he was puzzled by what is wife was up to. His servants read from the royal history, the story of Mordechai saving the king’s life without getting a reward. The king ordered Haman, who happened to be walking outside the room to publicly honor Mordechai. Haman begrudgingly obeys.
When rapport and favor is established, Indirect Communication might become more direct
At the second banquet, Esther finally uses Direct Communication in her request. (After she makes sure the king has had at least one serving of wine to put him in a favorable mood.)
When the king asks her again about her request and assures her of his benevolence, Esther tells about the threat that faces her and her people. Though switching to direct communication, she is still polite and puts herself in a position of submission to the king to increase the chance of getting things her way.
After the king had Haman executed and gave his fortune to Queen Esther, she once more came into the king’s presence and asked him to revoke the law that allowed the Jews to be murdered and plundered by their enemies. The king could not change the previous law, but he gave Esther & Mordechai the authority to write a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves that he would sign into law.
What is the moral of this story, from a perspective of Communication Styles?
1. Indirect Communication can be very effective - Esther got what she wanted plus some (an increase in stature, influence and wealth on top of rescuing the Jews)
She played the communication game very shrewdly using the rules of the society that she was a part of and had grown up in for her favor.
2. Indirect Communication takes more time and effort than Direct Communication, but the results are worth it. (Queen Vashti didn’t have time for indirect communication and was perhaps so undignified that she switched to direct communication. She did get what she communicated, no naked dancing in front of the king’s guests, but she paid a hefty price)
The feedback we get from the participants in our intercultural marriage workshops is that:
- Indirect communicators generally have an emotional blockage that prohibits them from using direct communication. They simply feel they’re constantly insulting the other person when using direct communication. Hence, when an indirect communicator does communicate directly and bluntly in public, they are many times upset and angry with the other. (Like Queen Vashti might have been too.)
- Direct communicators simply don’t know where to begin when they want/need to communicate indirectly. So many nuances, so much background knowledge that is needed. It’s a lack of information, of training and of awareness of reading between the lines.
- Lastly, when two indirect communicators from different cultures have to interact, they might still struggle. They may be used to indirect communication but both miss the context of the other person and that handicaps them in their interaction as indirect communication is very specific to a culture.
In a later article we will revisit the story of Queen Esther and look at the cultural dimension of (directive vs. directed) Destiny.
Published May 16, 2022
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