(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 xīn 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:
- Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
- Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures, and pauses.
- Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.
Advice for Chinese interacting with foreigners:
- Focus on what is said; try not to read too much into the words or be oversensitive to nonverbal nuances.
- Learn to accept what is said.
- 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.