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.

14 thoughts on “To “lie” or not to “lie””

  1. I had a different teacher this morning (the day after), so I asked her. She said this kind of response is more considerate because it ‘gives them face.’ She also offered some additional polite excuses:
    – “This is my parent’s phone, and I’m not allowed to give the number to anyone.”
    – “This phone’s fees are so expensive that I don’t like to use it, so I hardly ever do.”
    – “My home phone number is no good because we’re hardly ever at home, we’re gone all day every day.”

  2. I’m all for cultural sensitivity and doing what’s acceptable in the host culture as well. I’ve taken to saying, “I don’t have a cell phone,” which is true, but rarely have they asked for only my cellphone number. That should be a pretty good clue that I don’t want to tell them my phone number, but you’d be amazed how many people DON’T take the hint and say, “What about a land line?” Then I’ve got to say something like, “It’s not convenient.” Again, not a lie, but a pretty major hint.

    I wonder what your teacher would say if you asked, “How many times have you been asked for your phone number by someone you only see occasionally and have merely a cordial business relationship with?”

  3. Hey, Albert.

    I suppose that usually one of two things is happening when we give a hint and they still keep after us. Either (1) they know full well and just don’t care that we aren’t inclined to do what they want, and they think there’s still a good chance that they’ll get what they want out of us, or (2) our ‘hint’ doesn’t sound to them like it would to us. I’m sure there are numerous ways our softer, Western-style hints could be interpreted and numerous reasons why people might choose to ignore these them. Maybe they think our weak resistance is simply us beginning the negotiations? When it’s happening, though, I get the knee-jerk impression that they simply want something (usually English) very very badly and to them it’s totally worth risking offense; I’m just an English-teaching machine that they’re trying to access. But if I were in some of those mothers’ shoes, I’d honestly probably be among the most obnoxious.

    One key thing that I think might divide an effective excuse from a useless one is whether or not it leaves room for argument. I’m assuming the idea is to give them a ‘lie’ that effectively communicates “没办法,” not one that just says, “Well, I’d rather not, (but…).”

    We tossed this whole scenario around in the breakroom today. At one level I totally get how this isn’t really lying, but for now it still feels ‘wrong’ for me to do it. People can’t just think their way out of their cultural programming in an instant; it takes a little time. And, of course, there’s always the exegesis…

  4. This is an awesome post Joel, this is perhaps the best essay on this issue I have ever read. I wish I could have read it years ago, it would have saved some struggles learning that the hard way.

    Regarding Jesus, I’d say context does matter. Middle Eastern culture then and now was very direct and in your face. What would Jesus have said in China?

  5. Joel,

    Thank you for this great post. I think some of it can apply to life in Japan as well. It does take a while to contextualize one’s self and one’s message to another culture.

  6. Thanks, Curtis. I just wish I’d titled it something irresponsible and inflammatory, like “Chinese people like it when you lie to them” or “It’s good to lie to Chinese” or something like that. ;) I left the door open on the pro-literal side of the issue only because I haven’t done the exegesis on that particular passage, and I like that Jesus occasionally really sticks it to our cultural conventions. Aside from the way my own cultural conditioning makes me feel, which I know from experience can be overcome in time regarding things like this, I’m working with the assumption that that kind of communication is more or less legitimate (even if it can be so annoying at times!). And it is curious that Jesus said what he did in a more argumentative, in-your-face culture.

    Ben – ha, soapboxes can be fun! I have a few myself. And I agree that living into another culture takes time – a long time. It’s not something you can achieve just through books and head-knowledge.

  7. I’m finding that even within ‘Western’ culture I am a member of different cultural spheres that communicate very differently within themselves.

    At one job I can take every communication at literal face value and count on it (even demand) that it be as it was said.

    In my other job the non-verbal and implied are much more important.

  8. Totally. And I assume you don’t have too much trouble knowing when to use which form of communication. It’s intuitive. For us living here, it sometimes feels like all our intuition and (formerly unconscious) assumptions are worthless.

    But even when you’re in a place where the non-verbal is more important, how often does it actually contradict what’s literally said (‘saying’ one thing that isn’t literally true)?

  9. Hey, well if you get to play white like Oprah and female like Obama, it’s only fair that I get to play a little 客气。

  10. just came to read this because it’s linked to frog in a well.
    my assumption regarding the problem: give them your phone number. in china, as everywhere else in the world, asking for a phone number doesn’t express the will to actually use it. and even if…

  11. unfortunately, freely giving out your phone number in China can be a real pain, because there are enough people (not most, but many) who are so determined to practice English that they will pursue any possible opportunity to practice until the door is metaphorically slammed in their face. you’ll get calls all the time. These kind of people don’t want a friend; they want an English-practice machine. I’ve had this experience several times, and the China expat blogosphere is full of experiences with this kinds of people.

    I don’t blame people for trying hard and being persistent, but it’s not uncommon to find people here who are more than willing to take it too far.

  12. ha, i just tell people i don’t have a phone (lie) and hope i don’t have the horrible luck that someone calls me that moment. barring that, or especially if they’re asking me to teach them/their kids english, i say i’m not an english teacher (currently, not a lie) and give them the number of one of my friends who IS an english teacher and looking for customers. and sometimes i just say, sorry, 不愿意.

  13. “A good way to save face is to keep the lower half of it closed.” -unknown author

    shown at our local gathering this morning

Leave a Reply!