Being Chinese about it

(Before i get on with the post, check out Ruth’s blog post about skyping with Jessica!)

We’ve read a lot of books written to Westerners explaining/warning us about the way Chinese typically negotiate and get things done… about understanding how “yes” can mean, “no,” “maybe,” “I don’t know,” “that depends on,” “we’ll keep repeating this conversation until you change your mind,” “I like you but I don’t want to do it the way you’re suggesting but don’t expect me to ever come out and actually say that,” etc., depending on non-verbals and context.

I think we’re getting our first little dose of this in some of our planning conversations at the school. I imagine we must be driving them crazy: “What is the deal with these wai4 guo2 ren2! How do they expect to get anything done?”

It’s strange. Although it’s kind of annoying to be on the receiving end of this high-context, indirect form of communication, it really appeals to my passive-aggressive side. Learning to play that game – or a least be on the giving end of that kind of treatment – seems like it’d be kind of fun, like some kind of passive-aggressive sport. I’m not saying these are necessarily good motives for cross-cultural adaptation, just that part of me still finds passive-aggressiveness attractive (the part that likes to play Risk).

And I don’t want to give the wrong impression: that stereotypically Chinese indirect communication is always what we negatively judge as passive-aggressive in the West. It’s only bad (‘passive-aggressive’) when it’s abused. We’re only getting a minor dose of the nice kind at the school. These conversations are all English, our boss here has spent a lot more time around Westerners than the average Taiwan resident, they’re really nice and accommodating to us, and we’re new to the culture so our radar is still pretty weak when it comes to picking up on all the cultural factors at play. But the last couple weeks I’ve been paying attention to the different ways “yes” is said, and now I’m at the point where I’m starting to ignore the actual word and look for other non-verbals or where the conversation goes immediately following the supposed affirmative.

3 thoughts on “Being Chinese about it”

  1. Hey guys! This is my first time on your blog! I know, I know, it took me F-O-R-E-V-E-R!!!! But better late than never, right? Of course right! Okay, enough excited marks, as we called them in my kindergarten class. As I was trying to decide what to read first on your menue, I was thinking, wow, I have some serious catching-up to do! So I clicked on the first item and I’m going to work my way down.
    I think that I have figured out that this little box is for a reply to the entry I just read. I just clicked on the little link to find out what it was, and here I am. I will eventually get around to replying on that specific entry, but I just have so much to say, that it will just have to come in its own good time!
    Okay, here it is: I had no idea that the word yes could be so confusing! I know that in our own culture we use sarcasm and express things with our body language that are contrary to the words that are expelling from our mouths, but it sounds like the Chinese way of doing this is much more complex. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we were not raised in such a culture, but still, it is no less frustrating even so. Since this entry was posted over a month ago, I assume that you have made strides (however small they may be)in understanding “yes” better. Good luck and keep up the good work! I love you both and miss you soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much!

  2. Abi….
    Yes.

    -Jessica

    Okay..here’s my real reply…Heheeh. I think I’m soooo funny….anyway, it’s so good to see you on here!!!! comment away, my friend. I wish all of you guys could come visit….and I wish I could download all of the elementary ed classes that you’ve taken over the last few years…they would really help! We’re doing well, but figuring out classroom stuff by trial and error…as well as getting feedback from our co-workers, so that we make sure we don’t mess up too badly.(=

    You’re almost finished with student teaching, I bet! Wow!!!! How’s the wedding planning?

    -Jessica

  3. Hey Abi. Didn’t you like that shot of Jessica with the kids?

    I had no idea that the word yes could be so confusing! I know that in our own culture we use sarcasm and express things with our body language that are contrary to the words that are expelling from our mouths, but it sounds like the Chinese way of doing this is much more complex.

    It’s what happens when people from a low-context culture (us) live and work in a high-context culture (Taiwan), if you want the actual terms. We do a lot with non-verbal communication in America, but relative to Asians we’re highly explicit. Comunication here is more implicit, unspoken, and non-verbal. Since we don’t know the culture – we don’t ‘feel’ it like they do – most of those non-verbals whoosh right past us.

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