The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.2): explanations, excuses, & scapegoats

“People are worth less in China” is a provocative way to say that, in Chinese culture, there is less inherent value ascribed to the individual. The individual, in and of itself, is worth less, and this allows for routine public behaviour that appalls hyper-individualistic Western foreigners.

It’s not that the Western world is populated with millions of Mother Teresas or that the average Canadian naturally gushes altruism. Western cultures have their ugly sides. Besides, the Good Samaritan as most Westerners understand it is a watered down, less-obligated, mere shadow of the revolutionary and counter-cultural original.

Still, encountering Good-Samaritanless behaviour on the streets of the Middle Kingdom unavoidably tempts foreigners to indulge feelings of cultural and moral superiority whether such feelings are warranted or not. But regardless of which culture you belong to or how you think they compare, how we respond to other human beings is a moral issue. And knowing how to best act in situations in a culture that’s foreign to you requires some cultural understanding.

If you’re a foreigner in China, I hope Part 2 will help you better understand some of the shockingly calloused behaviour you’re occasionally witnessing; writing this is part of my own culture learning process. If you’ve never been to China, this article explores cultural factors behind the kind of behaviour described in Part 1 by surveying a handful of culture readings. (To discuss how we might intentionally respond to this particular aspect of Chinese culture, see Part 3).

I. Placing Blame

Why, when a man is bleeding from the head in the middle of the road in Tianjin, are the foreigners the only ones who rush to help, even though they’ve been advised by their Chinese friends to just walk on by? How can the supposedly “communal” Chinese not care about strangers?

The idea that Chinese don’t show even nominal concern for strangers isn’t new. Chinese social commentators bemoaned this aspect of Chinese society well before Liberation (1949). What or who gets the blame for this? As you may have guessed, Confucius — in whom Mainland Chinese both officially and in popular imagination currently locate the essence and source of “Chineseness” — takes a lot of flak.

林语堂 (Lín Yǔtáng) offers an explanation in My Country and My People, which he wrote in English to introduce Chinese culture to foreigners in 1935:

…Confucianism omitted out of the social relationships man’s social obligations toward the stranger, and great and catastrophic was the omission. Samaritan virtue was unknown and practically discouraged. Theoretically, it was provided for in the “doctrine of reciprocity”… But this relationship toward “others” was not one of the five cardinal relationships, and not so clearly defined. … In the end, as it worked out, the family became a walled castle outside which everything is legitimate loot [p.177].

Culture scholars Gao and Ting-Toomey convey similar observations (Communicating Effectively with the Chinese, 1998):

Cheng (1990) points out that the Confucian “five cardinal relationships” (wÇ” lún; 五伦) put too much emphasis on family and one-to-one relationships (e.g., brother to brother and father to son); hence, they fail to address the broader aspect of human relationship, such as that between a person and the community at large. Liáng Qǐ Chāo 梁启超 (1936), a prominent thinker in modern Chinese history, attributed a Chinese person’s lack of “civic morality” (gōng dé; 公德) and sense of obligation to society to the Confucian ethic [p.14].

II. Suffocating Cynicism

The Mainland’s disturbing apparent lack of compassion for the stranger is enabled by the wilting cynicism directed at any would-be Good Samaritans. Why, if someone does dare to help, are they automatically viewed with suspicion and often assumed guilty? Why are altruistic motives the least likely of all possibilities? Here’s the most quotable explanation I’ve come across so far, once again from 林语堂 (Lín YÇ”táng):

To Chinese, social work always looks like “meddling with other people’s business.” A man enthusiastic for social reform or in fact for any kind of public work always looks a little bit ridiculous. We discount his sincerity. We cannot understand him. What does he mean by going out of his way to do all this work? Is he courting publicity? Why is he not loyal to his family and why does he not get an official promotion and help his family first? We decide he is young, or else he is a deviation from the normal human type.

There were always deviations from type, the … “chivalrous men,” but they were invariably of the bandit or vagabond class, unmarried, bachelors with good vagabond souls, willing to jump into the water to save an unknown drowning child. (Married men in China do not do that.) Or else they were married men who died penniless and made their wives and children suffer. We admire them, we love them, but we do not like to have them in the family [pp.171-172].

…in theory at least, Confucius did not mean family consciousness to degenerate into a form of magnified selfishness at the cost of social integrity … He meant the moral training in the family as the basis for general moral training [from which] a society should emerge which would live happily and harmoniously together.

The consequences are fairly satisfactory for the family, but disastrous for the state [175-177].

My own initial impression — and it’s just an impression — after living and studying in China for two years, is that Mainlanders are surprisingly quick to suspect one another’s motives, as if attributing negative, selfish, or less-than-noble motives to any seemingly unselfish gesture is automatic; it’s a given that altruism isn’t a real possibility. Potential Good Samaritans know this, and are therefore hesitant or afraid to act (see Example 5 in Part 1).

Here’s a perfect example, right from The People’s Daily:

…pedestrians in Fuzhou wanted to help when they found the old man lying on the ground last Wednesday. Two women tried to help the old man up. But one of the onlookers said: “Better not touch him. It will be hard for you to put it clearly later on.”

The two women hesitated and finally stood up. Using their cell phone, they called the police and first-aid center. But by the time the ambulance arrived, the old man had died.

The case is not exceptional. A similar tragedy happened just 13 days earlier, in Shenzhen. A 78-year-old man was found on the rain-soaked ground, face down in a residential compound, none of the onlookers took any action except to call the police. Despite the efforts of first-aid personnel to save his life, the man died. Had anybody turned him over and lifted his head up, the old man wouldn’t have died. When questioned by the man’s son, one of the community’s guards said: “We dared not touch the old man because we would not be able to put it clearly should anything untoward occur.”

The phrase “hard to put it clearly” may sound odd to foreigners, but everybody in China nowadays knows its meaning. When you try to help someone who falls to the ground injured or in coma, that person may allege that you caused the fall. You will then find it difficult to clear yourself of suspicion if the case is taken to court.

The same article describes a case where a bystander actually did help a woman who had fallen and broken her leg. The woman’s family took him to court, and the court ruled in favour of the family, saying it was most likely that the man was guilty (even though there was no evidence to support this) because “His behavior [of being a Good Samaritan] obviously went against common sense.”

It doesn’t help that playing for public sympathy is apparently something of an art form in China, and would-be victims can incur a similar level cynicism and distrust from witnesses. In this example translated from the Chinese internet, a crowd of onlookers sides with the out-of-town driver of an expensive car rather than the poor local pedestrian who was seemingly run down. In the crowd’s view, the pedestrian deliberately got “hit” by an expensive out-of-province car in an attempt to bully rich outsiders for compensation money — an allegedly common practice.

III. Prescribed Obligations

At this point, people with Chinese friends (or relatives) might be objecting, calling “unfair!” and at least wanting to balance out the picture. I’m among them, actually. After all, Chinese can be some of the most self-sacrificing individuals, certainly more so than the average American (see Example 2 in Part 1). The obligations to friends and family and the demonstrated willingness to meet them, for example, are greater than in the States. And where did that stereotype of the quiet, polite, accommodating Chinese come from anyway?

commeffective.jpgThe [Americans] interact with Asians socially as well as at work and find them to be among the kindest, most considerate, and polite people they have ever met. Then, they meet other Asians in a public situation (on a bus, driving in traffic, in the market) and see them as rude, impolite, and inconsiderate. They wonder how people from the same culture can behave so differently [Gao, p.48].

Anyone who’s spent time among Chinese people knows that the Chinese can be some of the most generous and accommodating hosts on the planet. How is it that the same people who display warm, inviting, and consistent hospitality and graciousness in one situation (each linked word goes to a personal example of how we’ve experienced open-armed and often red-carpet treatment from our Chinese friends, neighbours, and employers) but display unapologetic heartlessness in another?

In Chinese society, how you stand in relationship to someone else defines how you should and shouldn’t relate to them, including your degree of obligation to them. In China, these different relationship categories (sometimes identified as family & close friends, guests, important connections, and strangers) make a huge difference in people’s behaviour.

Zì jǐ rén (自己人; “insider”) and wài rén (外人; “outsider”) are two of the most frequently used concepts in Chinese conversation. Chinese make clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders. A person with an insider status often enjoys privileges and special treatment beyond an outsider’s comprehension. Moreover, Chinese are less likely to initiate interactions or be involved in social relationships with outsiders. Thus, understanding the distinction between an insider and an outsider is an essential task in the Chinese self’s relational development. Chinese need to recognize not only where they are in relation to others but also, more important, whether their relationships with others are situated in an in-group or out-group context. The notions of insiders and outsiders are an integral part of the Chinese self-conception [Gao, p.49].

Hong Kong-based social psychologist Michael Harris Bond in Beyond the Chinese Face draws the connection between the Chinese relational world and typical Chinese attitudes toward “strangers”:

There is no affective response toward such people, for they are outside one’s established groups. The law of the jungle tends to prevail, with people seeking their own personal advantage, totally indifferent to the needs and ‘rights’ of others. A careless pushiness, released by the absence of authority, is the order of the day. What Westerners would call rudeness and callousness are endemic to such encounters and result in some testy exchanges across cultural lines! They were certainly the inspiration for this remark by Ralph Townsend (an American consular officer posted to Shanghai in the 1920’s) in Ways that are Dark: ‘What we see among them (the Chinese) is complete indifference to supreme distress in any one not of their immediate family or associations, even where the most trifling effort would assist the afflicted person.’

The Chinese response is always based on the nature of a pre-existing, specific relationship. Strangers have no place in this social logic and are not mentioned in any of the Five Cardinal Relations [Confucian values]. In this vacuum there are no constraints beyond self-interest to bind people together. And it was surely to this area of public behaviour that Sun Yat-sen was referring when he described the Chinese as ‘a pile of loose sand’. Similarly, Sun Long-ji has written:

We may say that from birth, a Chinese person is enclosed by a network of interpersonal relationships which defines and organizes his existence, which controls his Heart-and-Mind. When a Chinese individual is not under the control of the Heart-and-Mind of others, he will become the most selfish of men and bring chaos both to himself and to those around him.

The only principle that might guide behaviour towards strangers is the Chinese ‘golden rule’ of Confucius, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ This counsel, however, is in the negative and prohibits harmful acts rather than promoting helpfulness. It is quite different in its consequences from doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog. Such a principle operates less strongly in Chinese society [pp.56-57].

Sometimes foreigners in China mistake this calloused, seemingly selfish behaviour for “individualism.” I think it’s clear that this is a mistake. It’s the Chinese communal emphasis on family and long-term associates and the failure to perceive much inherent value in the individual that allows for the dehumanization and disregard of strangers, not a greater sense or growing value of individualism. Individualism may or may not be significantly rising in China, but public unconcern for strangers isn’t reflecting it.

IV. “A pile of loose sand” and the lack of civic consciousness

In the early 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen famously referred to the Chinese as “a pile of loose sand” and apparently saw nationalism as the solution:

For the most part the four hundred million Chinese can be spoken of as completely Han Chinese with common customs and habits. We are completely of one race. But in the world today, what position do we occupy? Compared to the other peoples of the world we have the greatest population and our civilization is four thousand years old; we should therefore be advancing in rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have a hundred million people gathering together in China, in reality they are just a pile of loose sand.

That was almost a century ago. Today, China suffers from nationalism overload, yet the same lack of civic consciousness still plagues domestic China. Consider these comments from award-winning journalist Ian Johnson describing late-90’s China:

A friend of mine liked to argue . . . [that] the crackdown showed that Chinese actually didn’t care much about each other or the discrepancy in what they saw and what the [people in charge] did. There was no solidarity with the persecuted, unless they were family members or personal friends. It was like the traffic accidents that one sees in big Chinese cities — crowds gather only to stare; almost no one stops to help. No wonder [the people in charge] could hold on to power so easily, he said. It doesn’t have to divide and conquer its enemies; they are divided of their own accord. I had to agree with him, because I rarely encountered a person who got really angry about the way [the people in charge] treated [the persecuted] adherents. While some far-thinking people saw the campaign as unjustified and cruel, most simply shrugged and wondered why people bothered to stand up for something they believed in. Concerned with their daily struggles, they couldn’t understand why [the persecuted] believers insisted on exercising publicly. “Why not just exercise in the living room?” was the most common response I got when I asked about the repression… [pp. 288-289, my paperback 2005 edition].

While people routinely blame contemporary China’s alleged “moral and ethical vacuum” and low civic consciousness, here’s one recent commentator who offers a countering theory, arguing that this seemingly callous behaviour is not due to a general lack of compassion for strangers or low civic consciousness:

…it is misguided to simply attribute China’s many social ills to people’s supposed lack of suzhi or ethics. In fact, the issue often does not lie with the values of individuals, but with their expectations for people’s behavior in social interactions that carry multiple potential outcomes. Without favorable social expectations that induce citizens to act in the interests of strangers, even compassionate people will often walk right by — a behavior that characterizes many negative social phenomena in contemporary China.
The worst-case scenario is this: First, the fall is serious. Second, society does not expect passersby to help regardless of their responsibility for the fall. Third, if someone does help, society believes that they were most likely responsible for the fall in the first place. In the end, almost nobody helps the senior citizen, and they, in turn, sue anyone who offers assistance [because they assume a high probability that the helper is culpable].

Did I leave out any other major contributing cultural factors? Don’t be shy; let me know! I realize I’ve focused here on cultural heritage to the exclusion of other major contributing factors shaping Mainland Chinese relationships and society today, which at least deserve a mention: prescribed atheistic materialism in education and multiple consecutive generations experiencing severe trauma and brutality (decades of foreign invasion and civil war, the mass famine and political brutality of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution).

Up Next…

What should you do when you feel morally compelled to intervene in a public situation, but you know that everyone from the victim to the surrounding crowd will probably misunderstand your actions and discount your motives? When intervening means breaking social norms in a way that might result in an ugly public confrontation or you getting officially blamed for the very situation in which you’re trying to assist, and maybe even fined for it, should you still intervene? How, and under what circumstances? In other words, how to be a Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics?

These are the questions I want to explore in The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.3). The best answers, of course, will come from Chinese people who have the necessary insight into their own culture, not foreigners. The idea, in the end, is to be better prepared the next time I find myself instinctively wanting to play the Good Samaritan where he isn’t necessarily welcome.

Related Articles:

Chinese people like it when you “lie” to them?

(This post comes with a soundtrack; you can play it while you read! ;) )

C’mon baby, go ahead ‘n’ liiiie to me!

This is the unedited version of an expat magazine article about Chinese-American interpersonal miscommunication. It’s mostly to help new foreigners in Tianjin, especially Americans, deal with a common cross-cultural miscommunication problem.

It’s a little cheesy; just some basic Cross-Cultural Communication 101 kind of stuff in an area that routinely trips up American-Chinese communication (I’ve heard that Germans can be pretty bad about this particular problem, too).

To Lie or Not to Lie – that is (not necessarily) the question

Interpersonal communication ‘with Chinese characteristics’: A little understanding goes a long way when feelings get hurt by Chinese/Expat miscommunication

Cross-cultural conflict flashpoint: “honesty”
“Honesty” is a common miscommunication flashpoint between Mainlanders and Westerners – especially North Americans. Sometimes foreigners feel like their Chinese friends lie to them. They say they agree even when they don’t, and reply, “OK” even when they mean, “Not really.” Even if the foreigner later realizes that their Chinese friends didn’t intend to disrespect them, the foreigner might then feel like Chinese politeness requires lying. Chinese cultural expectations sometimes seem to demand a daily dose of “white lies” and multiple possible meanings to the word “yes.”

But things look different on the Chinese side. Our “undercover foreigner” friend confirms what the culture scholars are already telling us. She reports that one of the biggest complaints her Chinese friends have against their Western friends is that foreigners too often think that Chinese people lie to them. From their perspective, they’re communicating perfectly clearly and often being extra courteous. It’s frustrating and offensive when friends accuse you of lying, especially when you’re going out of your way to be nice!

In every culture there are genuine liars who disrespect and cheat others. Other than not be one yourself, there’s nothing you can do about this. But your Chinese friends probably don’t intend to deceive you any more than your other friends do. If it seems like they are, most likely you’re just reading them wrong. The problem is largely about conflicting culturally-conditioned communication styles, not dishonesty, and it plagues personal relationships, workplace discussions, and even international business negotiations. But you can understand “interpersonal communication with Chinese characteristics” and learn to use it without feeling personally compromised or overly suspicious toward your Chinese friends.

The “Meaning Beyond the Words” (言外之意): So, you’re saying “yes” really can mean “no”?
Every day we each “say” a lot without using words. Even when we do use words, nonverbal “statements” can be so powerful that the meanings conveyed by our posture, tone, facial expression, timing, or the context in which we’re speaking can sometimes completely override the literal meaning of our words. Sarcasm is one obvious example.

But different cultures don’t all rely on nonverbal signals to the same degree. Chinese typically express more of their meaning through nonverbal signals than Westerners do – especially Americans. We all make regular use of both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, but comparatively, Americans are more “tuned in” to the words; Chinese are more tuned in to nonverbal channels.

A style of communication that especially emphasizes nonverbal signals makes it easy to clearly communicate a meaning that is different or opposite of the words’ literal meaning. To Americans, who focus relatively more on the literal meaning and fail to “hear” many of the nonverbal cues, this can easily look like lying.

It often happens that when a Chinese person wants to communicate a certain meaning to their American friend, they take their intended message and express large portions of it through their tone of voice, delivery, posture, and timing of their words. The actual words themselves may be relatively understated and hinting. But their American friend notices the literal meaning of the words more than anything else. The American may also notice some of the nonverbal signals but he might not understand all of them, and he wouldn’t think they’re that important anyway. The American leaves thinking he’s understood his Chinese friend clearly, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s disappointed. His Chinese friend will probably act on the meaning he intended to communicate, much of which was determined by his nonverbal signals. But the American’s expectations were built mostly on the literal meaning of the words that were spoken. And when his Chinese friend doesn’t do what he “said” he would do, it looks an awful lot like lying to the American.

Is all this really necessary? You bet your face (面子) it is!
All this laborious subtlety can annoy Westerners. Why can’t Mainlanders just be blunt and “say what they mean”? They certainly have no problem being blunt when they’re using guān xÄ«n talk” (关心) and publicly commenting on how fat we are, asking about our personal finances, or telling us what we ought to wear, eat, or how to handle our kids!

First, it helps to remember that we all make regular use of nonverbals and subtlety, it’s just that Chinese people usually do it differently and do it more. Second, Chinese rely more heavily on nonverbals for a very big reason: it’s safer. In a social environment where concern for “face” (面子 / miàn zi) governs social interaction — one Chinese scholar calls “face” Chinese culture’s “social grammar” – blunt, direct talk is reckless. Indirect, implicit meanings are less potentially threatening to one another’s “face.” Of course, “face” is a concern that Americans neither understand nor care much about, but it’s an unavoidable characteristic of Chinese interaction.

Enough with the theory! Give me a real life example!
I was surprised one day when my Chinese teacher told me to “lie.” That week several people had pressured me for English tutoring, which usually involves asking for my phone number. This is common in Tianjin, where there are plenty of mothers willing to haggle a foreigner into some sort of English tutoring agreement. But I don’t want to just blow people off; often these are people I’ll continue to see regularly, like neighbours. Plus, I don’t blame them for taking a shot when they have the chance.

I asked my teacher how to refuse in a way that works – meaning they “get the message” and quit bugging me for English – but allows me to keep up a relationship with them.

My teacher suggested that making up a deliberately transparent excuse is better:

You can tell a ‘lie.’ Tell them that you’re in the middle of getting your phone number changed and you don’t have the new number yet.

I passed this suggestion by several locals and heard unanimous agreement. But in North America, that’s a lie – relatively harmless and obvious, but definitely a lie.

However, we’re not in North America. Does that make a difference in this case? What if everyone involved understands the words “my phone number is being switched at the moment” to actually mean “I don’t want to give you my phone number, but I also don’t want to create any bad feelings between us and I care enough about our relationship to protect your face in front of your coworkers”? The spoken words aren’t meant to be taken literally and they won’t be, but plenty of meaning is still accurately conveyed. The meaning isn’t in the words; it’s “beyond the words” (言外之意 / yán wài zhī yì).

They might not like that I refused, but they’ll see that I’m refusing in the nicest way possible. In fact, my teacher joked that if I tell this ‘lie,’ “…they might even think, ‘Wow, this foreigner really knows Chinese culture and how to be polite!’”

The experts’ advice
Learning to tune into our Chinese friends’ nonverbal cues will take time. Having a good friend who is patient with our lack of understanding and comfortable enough to be honest is invaluable. The following parallel advice from two Chinese cultural scholars* reflects the ideas I’ve written above.

Advice for foreigners interacting with Chinese:

  1. Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
  2. Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures, and pauses.
  3. Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.

Advice for Chinese interacting with foreigners:

  1. Focus on what is said; try not to read too much into the words or be oversensitive to nonverbal nuances.
  2. Learn to accept what is said.
  3. Develop a belief that verbal messages and feedback are powerful and effective.

*From Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (1998) by Ge Gao and Stella W.C. Ting-Toomey, pp. 85-86.

To “lie” or not to “lie”

Living in a different cultural context can really make mincemeat out of your sense of right and wrong. Here’s a little example from over the last few days.

One of our foreign friends here is from Taiwan, but went to an international high school and then completed undergrad and grad school in the U.S. She married an American, speaks Mandarin and English perfectly and functions naturally in both cultures. This makes her a fantastic “undercover foreigner” in the sense that she can hang out with Chinese people and they’ll treat her more or less as a cultural insider. She reports that the number one complaint her Mainland friends have against their foreign friends is that foreigners too often think Chinese people are lying to them, when they’re actually being extra considerate to the foreigners. Some of our recent (and recurring) experiences illustrate how cultural context can greatly influence which actions are right/moral/proper/considerate and which ones aren’t.

Desperate times call for desperate measures pushy mothers
It’s not uncommon for someone we barely know – say, the bike park attendant we chat with a few times a week on our way to the gym – to ask us for our phone number. Lots of people do this, and often it’s because they want to practice English or they want us to help their child practice English. People can actually be really pushy and manipulative about it – at least that’s how it feels to us as foreigners.

Mothers are easily the worst. They will talk you into a corner where you’re forced to choose between being rude to them or doing what they want. I’ve had mothers literally stop and chat/negotiate with me on the sidewalk for the better part of an hour, refusing to give me an “out,” trying to get me to agree to tutor their kid. Part of the problem is my cultural ineptness, part of it is that they’re just really pushy and desperate. Competition among today’s Mainland students is “cruel,” to quote Guāng YuÇŽn (光远 – who just received acceptance letters from some American engineering PhD programs), and many mothers will exhaust every last trick in the book before they give up on the slim chance that the random foreigner they’ve just met will be their child’s advantage. I can’t say I blame them. (We haven’t received this treatment from any fathers yet.)

Saying “no” to these kinds of people can be pretty difficult – at least, difficult if you really want to be culturally appropriate, not cause offense, and in some cases, continue a relationship with the person (especially when they are people we see regularly). The typical polite Chinese response to this kind of situation looks like a straight up lie to Westerners. But in China, it’s hard sometimes for foreigners to know when a lie is a lie, and when a “lie” is actually the most considerate and appreciated response.

We know a lot of foreigners who feel that, unless you’re sheltering Jews from Nazis, you shouldn’t tell lies, period. I lean that way myself. But China throws this kind of ethic a curve ball. I’ll give you a current situation we’re in, and let you (try to) judge for yourself. If you haven’t encounter this kind of cross-cultural experience before, I think you’ll be surprised at how unstraightforward seemingly straightforward moral judgments can become in a different cultural context.

Our current somewhat ‘sticky’ situation
Four of us foreigners go to a local gym at least three days a week. We have to park at a guarded bike park spot and pay 5 máo ($0.07) to one of the three attendants, usually a young guy, an older man, and a mother of a teenager. We really enjoy chatting with them every time we go.

Last week the mother tried each of us one after the other to get an English tutor for her son. We all refused in turn (and unbeknownst to us at the time, we could have been much more culturally appropriate about it, though by our Western standards we weren’t rude in the slightest). Then last Saturday as I was leaving, the older man tried several times to get the younger guy to ask me for my phone number, deliberately putting me on the spot. The younger guy sensed that I didn’t want to give it to him and kept saying, “Don’t listen to him, forget it,” but it was a little awkward. I assume they’ll keep trying (today at lunch they tried to get James’ address), and here’s the question I discussed with my teacher this morning: How can I refuse in a way that works (meaning they ‘get the message’ and quit bugging us for our phone numbers and English) but allows me to keep up a relationship with them (we can still have fun chatting a few times each week)? We genuinely like these folks, but we aren’t going to spend our time teaching English.

My lesson in class this morning was about discussing “customs” and “habits,” and I wanted to know if I could just tell people, “I’m not accustomed to giving out my phone number to people I’m only recently acquainted with” (and put the blame on cultural differences, rather than anything personal with them). My teacher said I could say this, but it’s not the best response. Making up a transparent excuse is better. He suggested: “You can tell a ‘lie.’ Tell them that you’re in the middle of getting your phone number changed and you don’t have the new number yet.” In North America, that’s a lie – harmless maybe, and a poor one, but definitely a lie.

However in this case it’s supposed to be obvious. If I tell them my phone number is being changed, they will assume that’s not really the case and that I just don’t want to tell them my number; there’s no confusion about the meaning being communicated here. It also leaves no room for argument. This transparent “lie,” which literally says one thing but actually clearly ‘communicates’ something else, is the most considerate and appreciated way to refuse them. It saves their ‘face.’ They might not like that I refused, but they’ll see that I’m doing it in the nicest way possible, indicating that I do actually care a little. In fact, my teacher said, if I tell this ‘lie,’ “…they’ll think, ‘Wow, this foreigner really knows Chinese culture and how to be polite!'” So if I ‘lie’ to them, they might even be impressed!

This is the Chinese way, and it illustrates some of the slightly different roles that words can play in communication here (navigating ‘face,’ servicing relationships, etc.). Observe this parallel advice from two Chinese culture scholars* – first for foreigners interacting with Chinese:

  1. Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
  2. Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures, and pauses.
  3. Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.

And for Chinese interacting with foreigners:

  1. Focus on what is said; try not to read too much into the words or be oversensitive to nonverbal nuances.
  2. Learn to accept what is said.
  3. Develop a belief that verbal messages and feedback are powerful and effective.

So when is a ‘lie’ a lie?
So here’s the rub for Westerners who care about their personal integrity, want to be trustworthy, and therefore don’t want to lie to people: Must the real meaning of a statement be confined in the literal words used, or can the real meaning of a statement be honestly conveyed in nonverbals that seem to contradict the literal meaning?

We use words (and a lot of other things) to convey certain meanings. Good communication happens when the “intended meaning” (what the speaker means) and the “received meaning” (what the listener understands the speaker to mean) are more or less the same. What if everyone involved understands the words “my phone number is in the middle of getting switched at the moment” to actually mean “I don’t want to give you my phone number, but I really don’t want to create any bad feelings between us because I care enough about you and our relationship to protect your ‘face’ by not saying “no” and directly denying you”? The statement isn’t meant to be taken literally, and it won’t be, but plenty of meaning is still more or less accurately conveyed in the choice of words. There’s a Chinese phrase for this kind of communication, often translated, “the meaning behind the words” (言外之意).

I can already hear people objecting, for example, “But Jesus said, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’!” OK, fine. But what does that actually mean? Does it mean (and here’s the version naturally assumed by Westerners): “When you speak the word ‘yes,’ your intended meaning must always literally be yes. When you’re speaking, literal meaning must always trump all other forms of communication.” Or does it mean (perhaps a more Chinese culture-friendly interpretation): “When you communicate or indicate ‘yes,’ then you must follow through with it. Don’t indicate ‘yes’ one moment and then go back on it later”? (Somebody needs to go have some fun with exegesis!)

If you stop to think about it, there a tons of common situations in English where we use words to mean what they don’t actually literally say, but to us it’s “obvious” in those situations what the intended meaning really is. Our delivery, the context, and our non-verbals all speak quite loudly and quite clearly, so clearly that we would never think of such instances as “lies.” Sarcasm is only one kind of example.

Jury hung on account of cultural favouritism
Although it may sound like I’m arguing that it’s all fine and good for people to “lie” so long as they’re “lying” to Chinese people, I’m actually not sure what I think about all this. Maybe the culture stress is predisposing me to be contrary with Chinese culture today (yesterday afternoon we had a “fun” experience with a particularly obnoxious local – but it wasn’t literally fun, actually… ha, so am I lying?). Although I’m slowly learning to appreciate the importance of ‘face,’ I can’t help but feel like, at the end of the day, the world would be a better place, and China in particular, if the ‘face’ game was drastically toned down and we shifted the scales in favour of more direct speech. There is no shortage of Chinese social scholars who agree that ‘face’ is actually a major weakness of Chinese culture, but this indirect form of communicating also rubs my Western cultural fur the wrong way in more than one area, so I don’t want to pretend this is some sort of dispassionate cultural analysis. I wonder how my opinion will change over the years as we slowly learn to live into Chinese culture more and more.

P.S. – Speaking of our rubbing our cultural sensibilities the wrong way, we happened upon a thick crowd of people and bikes clogging up an intersection on our way back from the gym today. Someone was lying in the road – we assume he got hit, but it was hard to tell in the confusion which cars were involved and which were just trying to get around the crowd. A policeman was already there, and we didn’t stop to gawk. That’s another cultural observation for another time: how crowds will stand close and stare unapologetically at other people’s public suffering. At least the guy wasn’t in danger of getting hit again.

*From Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (pp. 85-86) by Ge Gao and Stella W.C. Ting-Toomey.

Free Advice – for you and your Chinese friends

If you’re a Westerner with Chinese friends, or a Chinese person with Western friends, you probably ought to read this. It’s from the end of Communicating Effectively with the Chinese, which is co-authored by a Chinese and a Western scholar and easily the single best-all-around book I’ve read on the subject so far. They should force-feed it to all China-bound Westerners, in my opinion.

commeffective.jpgAnyway, first the advice for North Americans who wish to get along better with their Chinese friends. Many Chinese would no doubt be astounded that we actually have to be told this kind of stuff (p. 85):

  1. Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
  2. Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures, and pauses.
  3. Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.
  4. Understand that Chinese selves are often embedded in plural pronouns, and learn to differentiate personal opinions from those of the group.
  5. Be aware that impersonal language can be used with outsiders and that insiders and outsiders are treated differently.
  6. Accept that Chinese value indirect talk and that requests are often implied.
  7. Recognize that definitive responses are rarely given in Chinese culture and that the word yes may have multiple meanings.
  8. Understand that modesty is a Chinese virtue and that understating and discrediting oneself is expected.
  9. Be aware that personal questions considered as private in the United States are asked frequently and that guān xīn talk is a sign of care and interest.
  10. Accept that Chinese tend to keep opinions to themselves and are uncomfortable in engaging in social talk with strangers.

And now the advice for the Chinese, who want to get along with their Western friends. You might be surprised that the authors felt Chinese actually need to be told some of this stuff (p. 86):

  1. Focus on what is said; try not to read too much into the words or be oversensitive to nonverbal nuances.
  2. Learn to accept what is said.
  3. Develop a belief that verbal messages and feedback are powerful and effective.
  4. Understand that self-affirmation and individuality are important to North Americans and that self-oriented messages are used to separate oneself from others.
  5. Be aware that everyone should be treated equally and that polite speech applies to family members, intimate friends, and strangers.
  6. Accept that North Americans value direct talk and that requests are often stated explicitly.
  7. Recognize that being assertive is valued in the U.S. culture and that “no” is an accepted assertive response.
  8. Understanding that modesty is equated with low self-confidence and that enhancing and crediting oneself is expected.
  9. Learn not to ask personal questions, because they can be offensive and insulting; understand that guān xīn talk may be construed as meddling and intrusive.
  10. Accept that North Americans like to express their opinions openly and are talkative in the social interactions.

关心 talk: so offensive it’s funny

Imagine that you’re having dinner with eight people you’ve only just met and one of them suddenly points out the zit on your forehead and says, “You have a big zit! You should stop eating spicy food.” Or imagine that when you go to get your flat bike tire repaired, one of the guys hanging out with the bike repair man says, “You’re too fat! That’s why your tire is flat. You shouldn’t ride a bike.” Or instead of imagining, you could just come to China!

This ought to be one of the first things they tell China-bound foreigners after the flight attendants have reviewed the safety instructions:

Be aware that personal questions considered as private in the United States are asked frequently and that guān xīn talk is a sign of care and interest.

It’s sort of a friendly joke shared among foreigners here. If you regularly spend time with locals, you will regularly be on the receiving end of 关心 talk, which is intended to express care, concern, or interest on the part of the speaker; it’s a relational gesture. However, many Chinese typically express care, concern, and interest by asking about or publically commenting on things that North Americans consider private, personal, and none-of-your-business: your appearance, age, marital status, weight (especially if you are exceptionally larger than the average Chinese, and many if not most Western women fit this category), number of children, salary, where you live, how much your rent is, how much your school fees are, what you should do about any apparent health concerns… these things are all in the public domain.

But it doesn’t stop there. 关心 talk also includes freely offered advice and criticism (劝解): usually what you or your child should eat, wear, or do to be healthier. It’s predictable, and was recently proven so by an American-educated-and-married Taiwanese woman we know here. She was out for a walk with a newly-arrived American English teacher, pushing her toddler in a stroller. She knew her son would fall asleep sitting in the stroller, and that locals consider this bad for the baby. She told her friend to watch, and sure enough, strangers came up and told her how to better take care of her baby.

(I also wonder if the questions, particularly the financial questions, are a means of “sizing you up,” so people can know where they stand in relation to you on the status-scale, which defines virtually all relationships in this Confucian-heritage culture.)

Gao and Ting-Toomey, who’ve co-authored my favourite all-around book about Chinese communication for Westerners, which ought to be mandatory reading for all Westerners in China, say this about 关心 talk (81-82):

guān xÄ«n (关心; “to show concern”) talk is a communicative genre that occupies a prominent position in Chinese relational communication. Guān xÄ«n entails asking questions about a person’s well-being and other personal matters… “To show concern” also evokes the use of cautionary remarks, such as, “You should not drink too much because it is not good for your health” or “You should put on some warm clothes because it is cold outside”… Quàn jiÄ› (劝解; “to caution and to advise”) is widely employed to show concern for others in Chinese culture…

Now of course, to Westerners all this public meddling in our private affairs is astonishingly offensive:

North Americans, however, do not appreciate others asking questions about their financial situation, age, family status, or appearance… To many North Americans, the discourse of guān xÄ«n can be misconstrued as disturbingly patronizing, condescending, and offensive.

Most of us don’t really know why we find it so offensive, other than that we intuitively consider these things to be “none of their business!” and we feel like they’re invading our privacy. The social scholars say we find it offensive because it impinges on our general sense of autonomy and individual self-determination – non-negotiable, culturally sacred values for North Americans.

“Bad days” aside, most foreigners we know just politely and happily endure such conversations, and if it was particularly noteworthy, laugh it off afterward with friends. I’ve personally started taking a more pro-active approach and having fun with it (how Western of me! ;) ), now that I know what’s in the realm of likely conversation. As soon as they bring up something “personal,” I engage it like it’s totally an interesting thing to talk about; none of that sheepish please-let’s-change-the-subject squirming from this 大鼻子外国人! Except that I deliberately avoid giving certain bits of financial information with some people.

Some of our own experiences with 关心 talk have made it to the blog before (but I’m too lazy to go look up all the links). Most recently a friend of ours “got the treatment” from the old boys club at the bicycle repair corner in our neighbourhood.

Some of our best experiences with this are below: