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:

11 thoughts on “关心 talk: so offensive it’s funny”

  1. GREAT topic. I think this really catches foreigners in China off guard because it occurs when Chinese speak English as well. It often feels too “motherly” and I’ve had friends say things like, “I’m 53 years old, I think I know when I need to put on warmer clothes.”

    Maybe I’ll blog/trackback on this article on my own site. Now…if I only knew how to do that.

  2. That is very interesting and good to learn. I’d hate to think of what they would say I would do to a bike! I love you guys and keep up the learning and teaching.

  3. Warmer clothes – ha! That’s gotta be one of the all time classics. Go ahead and blog it if you want. I think it’s important because it leads into a key aspect of living cross-culturally in general.

    In my opinion, if we’re the foreigners then the onus is on us to adjust and learn to not take offense when no offense is meant, if they’re operating within the legitimate parameters of their host culture. Some foreign friends we have still try to get their Chinese friends to change this behaviour because the foreigner finds it offensive, even though the Chinese mean no offense (usually) – they try to tell their Chinese friends something like “you shouldn’t talk like that to foreigners because it’s offensive to foreigners.” If we as foreigners aren’t willing to adjust on this kind of thing, then I would wonder why we ever left our home cultures in the first place. It doesn’t make sense to go live in some other culture and expect the locals to behave like people back home.

    Still though, it is a bit of a shock sometimes, especially when they do it in English! ;) I remember being totally speechless for a few seconds the first couple times it happened to me… it’s a situation we don’t ever face in our culture and it totally caught me off guard. But even at the time it was still funny.

    Tim – it doesn’t help that most of the bikes are also really light and made from the cheapest possible parts. But $15 is $15!

  4. “It doesn’t make sense to go live in some other culture and expect the locals to behave like people back home” you say.
    Am I allowed to criticise? Just so I know.

  5. Of course. and you’ll find plenty criticism on this blog… hopefully most of it’s fair, or at least honest. I think it’s important for foreigners to be honest, at least to themselves, about how cultural differences make us think and feel.

    The sentence you quoted is about having accurate expectations. We (foreigners) will eventually become annoyed and stressed by the ways that Chinese are different from us — that’s unavoidable and it’s not wrong. When we feel that way, it helps to remember that it’s unfair of us to expect Chinese to think and act like Canadians (or Brits or whatever). Wishing they would, feeling annoyed when they don’t — that’s fine and normal. But it’s unfair to expect that of them. Just like it would seem unfair to us for a Chinese person to go to England and get angry and criticize the British for not being Chinese. It’s normal for him to be stressed by the cultural differences and have strong feelings, but it “doesn’t make sense” for him to expect the British to behave like Beijingers and blame them for being different, as if it were wrong to be different. Does that make sense?

  6. I know what you mean. But isn’t it funny…and I don’t mean to bring politics into a light-hearted post, but still…isn’t it funny that the perspectives on foreign policy (well I guess I’m from the US, Canada’s significantly less patronizing) is somewhat reversed? Well, that may also be my bias speaking up, but just something I thought was quite ironic.

  7. Like so many people have said, this was probably the most disorienting thing I encountered when I first came to China.

    But I’ve always wondered: when does this kind of talk cross the line and actually become bossy or condescending from a Chinese point of view? Or else, what actions would cause somebody to be characterized that way?

  8. Michael, those are great questions. I don’t know the answers, but I would love to find out. At what point would a Chinese person be likely to feel that someone had ‘crossed the line’ of what is socially appropriate and entered offensive territory? Or, what factors make personal talk offensive or inoffensive?

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