(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 â€“ that is (not necessarily) the question
Interpersonal communication â€˜with Chinese characteristicsâ€™: A little understanding goes a long way when feelings get hurt by Chinese/Expat miscommunication
Cross-cultural conflict flashpoint: â€œhonestyâ€
â€œHonestyâ€ is a common miscommunication flashpoint between Mainlanders and Westerners â€“ especially North Americans. Sometimes foreigners feel like their Chinese friends lie to them. They say they agree even when they donâ€™t, and reply, â€œOKâ€ even when they mean, â€œNot really.â€ Even if the foreigner later realizes that their Chinese friends didnâ€™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 â€œwhite liesâ€ and multiple possible meanings to the word â€œyes.â€
But things look different on the Chinese side. Our â€œundercover foreignerâ€ 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, theyâ€™re communicating perfectly clearly and often being extra courteous. Itâ€™s frustrating and offensive when friends accuse you of lying, especially when youâ€™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, thereâ€™s nothing you can do about this. But your Chinese friends probably donâ€™t intend to deceive you any more than your other friends do. If it seems like they are, most likely youâ€™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 â€œinterpersonal communication with Chinese characteristicsâ€ and learn to use it without feeling personally compromised or overly suspicious toward your Chinese friends.
The â€œMeaning Beyond the Wordsâ€ (è¨€å¤–ä¹‹æ„): So, youâ€™re saying â€œyesâ€ really can mean â€œnoâ€?
Every day we each â€œsayâ€ a lot without using words. Even when we do use words, nonverbal â€œstatementsâ€ can be so powerful that the meanings conveyed by our posture, tone, facial expression, timing, or the context in which weâ€™re speaking can sometimes completely override the literal meaning of our words. Sarcasm is one obvious example.
But different cultures donâ€™t all rely on nonverbal signals to the same degree. Chinese typically express more of their meaning through nonverbal signals than Westerners do â€“ especially Americans. We all make regular use of both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, but comparatively, Americans are more â€œtuned inâ€ 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 wordsâ€™ literal meaning. To Americans, who focus relatively more on the literal meaning and fail to â€œhearâ€ 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 wouldnâ€™t think theyâ€™re that important anyway. The American leaves thinking heâ€™s understood his Chinese friend clearly, but itâ€™s only a matter of time before heâ€™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 Americanâ€™s expectations were built mostly on the literal meaning of the words that were spoken. And when his Chinese friend doesnâ€™t do what he â€œsaidâ€ he would do, it looks an awful lot like lying to the American.
Is all this really necessary? You bet your face (é¢å) it is!
All this laborious subtlety can annoy Westerners. Why canâ€™t Mainlanders just be blunt and “say what they mean”? They certainly have no problem being blunt when theyâ€™re using “guÄn xÄ«n talk” (å…³å¿ƒ) 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, itâ€™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: itâ€™s safer. In a social environment where concern for â€œfaceâ€ (é¢å / miÃ n zi) governs social interaction — one Chinese scholar calls â€œfaceâ€ Chinese cultureâ€™s â€œsocial grammarâ€ â€“ blunt, direct talk is reckless. Indirect, implicit meanings are less potentially threatening to one anotherâ€™s â€œface.â€ Of course, â€œfaceâ€ is a concern that Americans neither understand nor care much about, but itâ€™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 â€œlie.â€ 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 donâ€™t want to just blow people off; often these are people Iâ€™ll continue to see regularly, like neighbours. Plus, I donâ€™t blame them for taking a shot when they have the chance.
I asked my teacher how to refuse in a way that works â€“ meaning they â€œget the messageâ€ and quit bugging me for English â€“ 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 â€˜lie.â€™ Tell them that youâ€™re in the middle of getting your phone number changed and you donâ€™t have the new number yet.
I passed this suggestion by several locals and heard unanimous agreement. But in North America, thatâ€™s a lie â€“ relatively harmless and obvious, but definitely a lie.
However, weâ€™re not in North America. Does that make a difference in this case? What if everyone involved understands the words â€œmy phone number is being switched at the momentâ€ to actually mean â€œI donâ€™t want to give you my phone number, but I also donâ€™t want to create any bad feelings between us and I care enough about our relationship to protect your face in front of your coworkersâ€? The spoken words arenâ€™t meant to be taken literally and they wonâ€™t be, but plenty of meaning is still accurately conveyed. The meaning isnâ€™t in the words; itâ€™s â€œbeyond the wordsâ€ (è¨€å¤–ä¹‹æ„ / yÃ¡n wÃ i zhÄ« yÃ¬).
They might not like that I refused, but theyâ€™ll see that Iâ€™m refusing in the nicest way possible. In fact, my teacher joked that if I tell this â€˜lie,â€™ â€œâ€¦they might even think, â€˜Wow, this foreigner really knows Chinese culture and how to be polite!â€™â€
The expertsâ€™ advice
Learning to tune into our Chinese friendsâ€™ 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 â€“ 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.