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In comments to this question on Japanese.SE the asker claimed:

Direct is a synonym to "insensitive", at least in U.S. work environment

This sounds quite strange to me.

M-W says for insensitive:

1 a :  not responsive or susceptible
insensitive to the demands of the public
b :  lacking feeling or tact
so insensitive as to laugh at someone in pain
2:  not physically or chemically sensitive

and direct

2 free in expressing one's true feelings and opinions
our coach is very direct, never hesitating for a moment to tell a player whenever he isn't performing up to snuff

I guess one might equate "lacking feeling or tact" with "free in expressing one's true feelings and opinions" but it's a bit of a stretch IMO.

Is "insensitive" really used in this sense in U.S.?

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  • It depends on what you mean by those two words but also 'synonym', and 'mean'. There are no exact synonyms, but there are often groups that can usually replace one another (eg bucket/pail). Insensitive and direct, when talking about expressing oneself, are related and often may imply one another, but they do not usually replace one another. 'direct' does not mean 'lack of feeling', and insensitive does not mean 'free in expression' but of course both are likely to happen at the same time.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 17:09
  • There are no exact synonyms. Anyway, 'direct' and 'insensitive' may be used in very similar situations or one may imply the other, but they mean different things.
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 20:06

2 Answers 2

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In a colloquial sense, I would say yes, absolutely. To many Americans that meaning of 'insensitive' is implied, or 'direct' has a negative connotation.

I'm from Ireland and have been told I'm "too direct" now that I live in the US. But based on your M-W definition, it wouldn't really be possible to be "too" free to express your true feelings, right?

What I've learned is that this means that I'm not "sandwiching" my feedback enough to "ease the blow", which is indeed an issue with not having enough tact (from an American perspective).

As an example, I worked with an American t-shirt manufacturer once for my company, and when they made a critical mistake in one of the first test t-shirts that was sent out to someone important, I wrote a quick email that was definitely not rude but that was "too direct".

I wrote something along the lines of "Hi [name]. I just found out that there was a mistake on the t-shirt sent to [name]. [Explanation of the mistake]. Can you send out a new one with the correction? Thanks!".

This was a huge mistake and almost cost me the working relationship. I got a furious email back from them. My American wife (then girlfriend) explained to me that it was really harsh first feedback when I'm trying to build a working relationship with them.

To this day I need to run some correspondence by her when it's sent to Americans.

What I should have written was extra "padding" that complimented them on some aspect that was good, like how quickly they sent it out, or how great it's been to work with them, how soft the t-shirt was or another aspect of how impressive it was etc., and ending it with how I can't wait to see how the t-shirt line will grow.

Maybe I've lived too long in Germany or something, but I find this to be a waste of time.

From my perspective, it's just more efficient to get to the point. To be direct. But in the U.S. this can be seen as insensitive. It depends on who you are interacting with, as there are lots of Americans with thicker skin, but to this day I still struggle with this because I live here.

Rather than think of better or worse ways of communicating, I just accept that I'm doing business with them and because of this, I need to adapt. There are things that offend me too, like having to put up with overuse of dated stereotypes about Ireland, and I appreciate when they adjust for my benefit, so I think of it like that. I just have to remember to make the request that they make the adjustment... indirectly.

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    Thanks, very interesting! So it seems to rather be the other way around: a direct person can be considered insensitive, but insensitive is not necessarily direct, right? Commented May 15, 2017 at 15:05
  • Exactly! It's a good point that this is more of a case of different use of the word 'direct', than the word 'insensitive'. Even if I had added "cushioning" in my message in that example with positive words before and after the important feedback, if I had said something like "this first t-shirt was terrible", I would have been both insensitive and not direct. My understanding of insensitive is similar to Americans, even if the examples that would count as insensitive are different. You summarised it well and succinctly in your reply! Commented May 15, 2017 at 15:11
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    Fine story, however, while being direct may offend, and while you will be called insensitive for being too direct, I don't believe that "direct" itself means "insensitive". There are situations where directness is called for and accepted and there is no tinge of insensitivity involved. "Emergency conditions require direct communication" .. (I could dream up something else perhaps)
    – Tom22
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 20:43
  • for example.. I don't believe your wife would have said, your communication's problem was it's "directness".. she would say "too direct" .... "too" still being necessary. I think the question is 'how direct can I be without being insensitive'
    – Tom22
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 20:50
  • @Tom22 Certainly, being "too direct" is the problem... from the American understanding of the word. But from my perspective, the point at which one has reached where 'too' is applied, is such a low threshold, that simply being direct is the issue. Being "less direct" is not being direct any more from how I view it. Essentially "directness" is a negative thing to Americans as I see it. But the American definition of "directness" implies that only too much of it is the problem. You are right though in how my wife (as an American) would present the issue. Commented May 16, 2017 at 15:17
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"Direct" in this context means "straightforward", which can be a euphemism for "does not hold back a question"; which also includes awkward questions or questions that can come across as rude or insensitive.

E.g. when hearing that someone's spouse has died, a direct person would immediately ask about how they died, without even considering the emotional state of the widow(er).

"Direct" is not inherently synonymous with "insensitive", but it can be used as a euphemism to indicate the same thing. In context, it can mean the same thing. But only in the proper context.


Edit
Over time, a euphemism can become an accepted definition. E.g. calling someone "slow" nowadays is accepted as a way of saying they are dumb. This has only become accepted because it was often used as a euphemism even when it did not have the correct definition yet.

So in the future, "direct" may be considered synonymous with "insensitive". But at the moment, it is not.

Euphemisms are technically correct but intentionally vague and twisted (not direct!) to prevent someone from inferring malice in the statement that is made.

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