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(Letter) Chinese people like it when you "lie" to them

September 6th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

“C’mon baby, go ahead ‘n’ liiiie to me!

(Since this has nothing to do with politics, patriotism, the media, or scandal, I figured I needed a good title. 😉 The music video linked above is just for fun; you can play it in the background while you read!)

Below is the unedited version of an expat magazine article about Chinese-American interpersonal mis-communication. It’s supposed to help foreigners in Tianjin, particularly Americans, deal with a common cross-cultural miscommunication problem. To do this I had to try and describe to the foreign readers some aspects of a typical Chinese interpersonal communication style and contrast it with what’s typical of Americans.

I’d appreciate some feedback from Fool’s Mountain Chinese readers on this description a typical Chinese communication style. I’m assuming my understanding has plenty of room for improvement:

  • What do you think about the way this Chinese communication style is described below? Does it fit?
  • Which parts are inaccurate?
  • Are there any important things left out?

Please actually read it before you respond, and keep in mind that this was written to foreigners about Chinese communication.

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
By Dà Jiāng (大江)

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 our 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 emphasizes nonverbal signals makes it easy to clearly communicate a meaning that is opposite of the words’ literal meaning. To Americans who focus primarily on the literal meaning and fail to “hear” many of the nonverbal cues, this can easily look like lying.

Typically, when a Chinese person wants to communicate a certain meaning to their American friend, they take their meaning and express large portions of it through their tone of voice, delivery, posture, and timing of their words. The actual words themselves are understated and hinting. But their American friend notices the literal meaning of the words that are said 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 publically commenting on how fat we are, asking about our personal finances, or telling us what we ought to wear, eat, or how to dress our kids!

First, it helps to remember that we all make regular use of nonverbals and subtlety, it’s just that the Chinese 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 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.” 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* is also helpful.

Advice 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.

Advice 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.

———————
*From Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (pp. 85-86) by Ge Gao and Stella W.C. Ting-Toomey.
———————

The questions, once again:

  • What do you think about the way this Chinese communication style is described above? Does it fit?
  • Which parts are inaccurate?
  • Are there any important things left out?
  1. Netizen K
    September 6th, 2008 at 13:31 | #1

    Joel,

    Didn’t you say you’re new to Tianjin or China and you’re still not mastering the Chinese language? I suggest you study more and live more Chinese culture before you analyze it.

    I hope you’re not one of those who visited some foreign country for a couple of weeks and came back writing a 500-pages travel impression book.

  2. September 6th, 2008 at 14:30 | #2

    None of the ideas here are new and none of them are original with me. It’s basically just a digest of one of the common themes found in China-America communication books, which have also been confirmed by our experience and that of others, Chinese and foreign. This isn’t about me.

    I assume I’ve messed up on some of the details, which is partly why I’m asking for feedback. But the general idea (culturally conditioned communication style differences) is pretty basic Intercultural Studies 101 kind of stuff. Maybe you only read the title?

  3. Hemulen
    September 6th, 2008 at 14:56 | #3

    @Joel

    I think a lot of these manuals are a lot of rubbish, they give the impression that there is a master key to communication and once you have it, you don’t need to think for yourself. Communication is always difficult, and your own sound judgment is always the best guide.

    Now, if you really want a set of guidelines, I think the old curmudgeon Lucian Pye’s six rules of engagement from 1982 still hold true in many respects:

    The most elementary rules for negotiating with the Chinese are: (1) practice patience; (2) accept as normal prolonged periods of no movement; (3) control against exaggerated expectations, and discount Chinese rhetoric against future prospects; (4) expect that the Chinese will try to influence by shaming; (5) resist the temptation to believe the difficulties may have been caused by one’s own mistakes and (6) try to understand Chinese cultural traits, but never believe that a foreigner can practice them better than the Chinese.

    I think rule number six is the most important, “be yourself.”

    The full report, “Chinese commercial negotiating style@, can be downloaded at:
    http://www.rand.org/pubs/reprints/RP293/

  4. S.K. Cheung
    September 6th, 2008 at 16:45 | #4

    To Joel:
    There are lies (Enron is making lots of money…really); and then there are little white lies. Your example reminds me of the latter.
    It’s like when your wife asks: does this dress make my butt look big? You could be blindfolded, in another room, and there is still only one answer to that question.

  5. pug_ster
    September 6th, 2008 at 16:57 | #5

    To say that Chinese are liars or more dishonest than Westerners is totally false. Maybe some of us hold Chinese a higher standard than westerners in terms of honesty and expect them to hold their world. I hear Western Politicians like Obama telling us that the US will be prosperous nation once he is elected is a total lie. My co-workers makes promises to me and I didn’t expect them to keep it either. Chinese are humans too, and they are not perfect either. So I would not expect them to be honest 100% of the time either.

  6. TommyBahamas
    September 6th, 2008 at 17:16 | #6

    Agree with Hemulen’s ” I think a lot of these manuals are a lot of rubbish,”
    Disagree with “The most elementary rules for negotiating with the Chinese are: (1) practice patience; (2) accept as normal prolonged periods of no movement; (3) control against exaggerated expectations, and discount Chinese rhetoric against future prospects; (4) expect that the Chinese will try to influence by shaming; (5) resist the temptation to believe the…. Blah blah blah, same old tired generalization. THE Chinese are this , THE chinese are that….I could say the same, be patient with some foreigners who insist on being misunderstood all the time by being unwilling to “be a roman when in Rome. ” Be patient with certain expats’ general misinterpretation of almost everything that are perfectly simple to the Chinese or locals of whatever other countries they visit or are guests of ( e.g. Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Iran, Iraq etc.) Expect that the expats will try to influence by shaming; resist the temptation to believe the difficulties may have been caused by one’s own mistakes, like bad English, wrong translations, accused of lying when you are not, lack of sophistry and a million other things. Like I said, I could say the same, BUT I won’t, because it does not help improve human relationships

  7. Nimrod
    September 6th, 2008 at 18:07 | #7

    I think you’re all missing the point, which was this:

    “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.”

    Communication requires two parties to synchronize on a protocol and language. As long as two sides both know the protocol and language, information flows smoothly. If they are expecting different protocols, you surely will get the wrong information. It’s as simple as that and there is nothing inherently wrong with it — no point calling that lying. And I agree with Hemulen, a lot of it is just common sense. You need to be more sensitive and in-tune with body language and cultural cues.

  8. Hemulen
    September 6th, 2008 at 20:35 | #8

    @TommyBahamas

    I don’t think that Lucian Pye is telling foreigners not to adapt to Chinese culture, or not to act according to “in Rome do as Romans do.” He’s just warning the reader that there are limits how far you can go in adaptation and as long as you are in Chinese, you’re not on your home ground. Pretty common sense, but people often forget that. If you think that Pye is insulting, I have read much worse things written by Chinese.

  9. TommyBahamas
    September 6th, 2008 at 22:43 | #9

    “I don’t think that Lucian Pye is telling foreigners not to adapt to Chinese culture,”

    I understand Lucian Pye’s warning.You, however, seems to have misunderstood my comment — and we are both using the same language.
    “If you think that Pye is insulting,”

    No, Hemulen, not insulted, just tired of the generalization. How right you were to say, “Communication is always difficult, and your own sound judgment is always the best guide.”

  10. RMBWhat
    September 6th, 2008 at 23:05 | #10

    Why does there have to be rules and guides anyways? Just interact like you normally do. If you get cheated, lied to, whatever, it’s your own fault.

    There may be language and cultural differences, but damnit the Chinese are human beings, and all the baggage that comes with being human.

  11. TommyBahamas
    September 6th, 2008 at 23:06 | #11

    @Joel,

    I love the music Video — what great song! Thanks. (Hate the title though 🙂 )

    And oh, I notice something else. I was at first puzzled (even indignant)when my North American friends say they hated or are jealous of Da Shan. What? Why? But having heard the same envious “lies” of admiration from enough of “them” I simply attribute it to some wierd cultural thing and have learned to play along or simply ignoredthe comment.

  12. TommyBahamas
    September 6th, 2008 at 23:09 | #12

    Ops, correction:

    I love the music Video — what great song! Thanks. (Hate the title of the article though )

  13. Jerry
    September 6th, 2008 at 23:50 | #13

    @S.K. Cheung

    #4

    LOL. ROFL. Thanks. You are right; sometimes you have to lie if you value your life.

    @pug_ster

    #5

    You are so correct. Westerners are just as prone to lying or white lies. Perhaps the Chinese in question in Joel’s examples are being discreet or polite. All people play games with the truth for all sorts of reasons. And sometimes they are “dead honest”, even if you would rather that they lie.

    How can you trust politicians whether in US, France, Taiwan or China? I just laugh at their proclamations. They do not speak “ex cathedra”. It’s just the game.

    @RMBWhat

    #10

    Right on! I don’t assign fault; it is just the way life is. We are all human. Isn’t it wonderful?

    @TommyBahamas

    #11

    Sound advice, great advice: “Play along”. The old proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

    @Joel

    I just take people with a “grain of salt”. Sometimes the grain of salt is smaller, sometimes larger. I find that suffering is part of life, too. I have learned not to go looking for it so much.

    Have fun. Enjoy. Life is short. Every day is a gift. Keep laughing. Be happy.

  14. MoneyBall
    September 7th, 2008 at 00:11 | #14

    If you think Chinese is tricky when they say no to you, wait till you get to Japan.

  15. September 7th, 2008 at 01:50 | #15

    @EVERYONE
    Please everyone go read Nimrod’s #7
    , because most of you are completely missing the point. Also, I think it’s interesting that so many people are uncomfortable examining cultural communication differences. This is a pretty tame topic, afterall.

    @Nimrod
    Thank you! FYI, that “undercover foreigner” is a Taiwanese woman who’s English and understanding of American culture are so perfect that when she’s with Americans, they think she’s American, even though she was born and raised in Taiwan. Her Chinese friends treat her like she’s Chinese.

    @TommyBahamas
    It’s just a title, meant to draw attention and be a little funny. If you look closely, you’ll see that I’m not saying Chinese people are liars; I’m saying the opposite, actually. That’s why I put quotation marks around the work “lie.” In this article, the problem is Americans’ lack of understanding, not Chinese people’s behaviour. Also, if we all just use our own best judgment, then we are doomed to miscommunicate.

    @RMBwhat
    We study the different ways that people tend to communicate so we can understand one another and avoid miscommunicating.

    @Jerry, @pug_ster
    Please actually read (and try to understand) the article before you comment. Thanks.

  16. Hemulen
    September 7th, 2008 at 02:54 | #16

    @Joel

    I agree with Nimord in #7 and he agrees with me. But the general advice “Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings” is a cliché, since it applies to anyone being in a foreign land. I’m a foreigner in the US and everyday I learn something new about the subtle social codes of this place.

  17. TommyBahamas
    September 7th, 2008 at 03:32 | #17

    Joel,
    ]
    “Also, I think it’s interesting that so many people are uncomfortable examining cultural communication differences. This is a pretty tame topic, afterall.”

    You are right, it is a tame topic. And yes, you are again correct to say that people are uncomfortable with this matter. Why? Because wild accusations and bad consequences/experiences have persisted.

    Take SKC’s suave compliment on (Chinese or western) wife’s joke, it’s got more to do with diplomacy, wisdom, good common sense, than telling the truth or lying.

    “It’s just a title, meant to draw attention and be a little funny. ”

    Of course it is, and I got it the first time— I was merely doing likewise in return — notice the smiling face 🙂 and the “thanks” for a posting a great music video. I am a fan of Johnny Lang, a great guitarist.

    “Also, if we all just use our own best judgment, then we are doomed to miscommunicate.”

    Perhaps you are right about that too. As for doomed to miscommunicate…well, that’s being a little dramatic isn’t it. We all have to learn from mistakes and do better the next time, and then even better the next time.
    Try saying Holistic approach vs. Intrusive surgery.

    I have read your other good comments and visited your blog. I know where yu are coming from. I really like your article on how not to get hammered drinking with some the local of yours in Tianjing.

  18. TommyBahamas
    September 7th, 2008 at 03:34 | #18

    Sorry.
    Damn, Sticky keyboard….I have read your other good comments and visited your blog. I know where yu are coming from. I really like your article on how not to get hammered drinking with some of the local friends of yours in Tianjing.

  19. Jerry
    September 7th, 2008 at 03:43 | #19

    @Joel, @Hemulen

    #15

    Joel, I read your letter. I contemplated. I responded. My comments still stand.

    What follows is a little perspective on me. It may help, or not. I don’t know.

    I am Russian Jewish American living in Taipei. My family and the Jewish people have known much persecution, imprisonment, and attempts at annihilation over many centuries. Thank God my grandfather and grandmother escaped Russia and immigrated to the US 100 years ago. I am 57, and the father of a son who turns 30 in December and a daughter who turns 27 in November. 4 years ago on my birthday, my son was involved in a car wreck where he rolled the car end-over-end at 80 miles an hour. He almost died. When my daughter was 12, she was diagnosed with a very rare, serious cancer which kills 85% of its victims. The treatment took 5 years. She had max chemotherapy, max radiation, and 14 surgeries. She has an artificial hip. Her last surgery on the hip was during her second year in medical school.

    My son has started his doctorate program in physical therapy. My daughter graduated from medical school in May and is now an orthopedic surgery resident. I am a very proud father. I am also a lucky man who is grateful for the gifts in my life. I am so lucky to still have both of my kids and to be here in Taipei.

    Most of the very same things that bother/interest/concern you and other expats about China, bother me at times, too, here in Taipei. I am very analytical. I study the people here, I think about the issues and I move on. Sometimes I gain understanding, sometimes not. One way or the other, I accept the way it is and move on. I sometimes revisit issues. I sometimes realize that my perspective has changed. Learning is sometimes joyous, painful or mixed. Nonetheless I keep on learning. And living.

    I agree with Hemulen on ‘But the general advice “Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings” is a cliché, since it applies to anyone being in a foreign land.’ IMHO I would also add trite and trivial. I am learning here in Taipei; Hemulen is learning in the US. I would assume that you are learning in China, dà lù.

    One last thing: “The experts’ advice”. Every time I hear/see the word “expert”, it grates on my nerves. I remember this saying, I think from Kissinger (I will paraphrase from memory, “An expert is someone who can repeat back to those in power what they wanted to hear in the first place.” So much for my humble opinion.

    Mazel tov. A bi gezunt.

  20. Wukailong
    September 7th, 2008 at 03:56 | #20

    @Joel: “Also, I think it’s interesting that so many people are uncomfortable examining cultural communication differences.”

    I remember this example where a middle-aged (Chinese) woman kept calling me about helping her finding foreign residents to be her students. I couldn’t really help her, so I used to answer what I’ve been used to since I was a kid: to say that I’m currently busy, but please call later, etc.

    After a while I felt bad about turning her down, so I thought we could meet and discuss her ideas a little bit. When we finally met up, she said to me: “One thing that’s so good with you is that you’re honest! In China, when you don’t want to see someone, you come up with excuses like being busy, being somewhere else, not having time. But Westerners are so straightforward!”

    It might have been another game of course, but I don’t think so. A lot of people here think that Westerners are by definition straightforward, just like a lot of Westerners believe Chinese are impossibly roundabout. 含蓄 and 婉转 are not Chinese-only concepts. 🙂

  21. TommyBahamas
    September 7th, 2008 at 04:22 | #21

    “a lot of Westerners believe Chinese are impossibly roundabout.”

    It seems that what some Chinese people consider as being polite is often being misconstrued as being dicey, sly, not forthright, dishonest etc; as Joel’s article have opened my eyes to see.

    Dear Chinese scholars,

    Is “礼多人不怪” a common Chnese saying, or is it just a Cantonese saying only?

    Dear Jerry,

    RE: “Of course, “face” is a concern that Americans neither understand nor care much about,”

    Would I be wrong to disagree with this statement???

  22. Jerry
    September 7th, 2008 at 05:04 | #22

    @TommyBahamas, @Hemulen

    #21

    Dear Tommy,

    “Of course, “face” is a concern that Americans neither understand nor care much about,”

    Speaking for all Americans and expats, … Oops! I forgot. I am not Obama or McCain. Only they can legitimately represent all Americans all of the time. ::tongue seriously in cheek:: ::ROFL::

    Probably some Americans understand and some not. Some accept and some not. Some care and some not. Some probably rarely think about Chinese people at all. I find it hard to believe that all Americans have the same reaction to “face”.

    I will say that I have gained more understanding and acceptance of the traits I see exhibited here. And that understanding and acceptance on my part is a “work in progress”. Life is a “work in progress”. “Face” appears to be important to people here in Taipei. So be it.

    Your question: “Would I be wrong to disagree with this statement???” IMHO, you would not be wrong. Please feel free to disagree. Just remember I am not speaking “ex cathedra”.

    The statement, “a lot of Westerners believe Chinese are impossibly roundabout”, is probably closer to the truth. I would amend the statement to “a number of Westerners believe a number of Chinese are roundabout”. At least at first. After a while, maybe it just does not matter. Or at least acceptance comes. Personally, I thought people a little obtuse here at first. I am just growing more accustomed and accepting.

    “It seems that what some Chinese people consider as being polite is often being misconstrued as being dicey, sly, not forthright, dishonest etc;” There is truth in that. I would guess that most foreigners have a difficult time at first in navigating the subtleties of a new culture, at least at first. Hemulen described it most aptly in #16, “I’m a foreigner in the US and everyday I learn something new about the subtle social codes of this place.”

    Do I lay awake at nights pondering these affairs? No. ::big smile::

    Mazel tov. A bi gezunt.

  23. TommyBahamas
    September 7th, 2008 at 05:24 | #23

    Thanks Jerry, for your reply:

    RE: Of course, “face” is a concern that Americans neither understand nor care much about,”

    I think, in fact, “Face” is also in American Culture:

    American sociologist Erving Goffman, …In his articles “On Face-Work”, and “Embarrassment and Social Organization”, Goffman presents a more Eurocentric conception of subject .

    http://www.temple.edu/isllc/newfolk/face.html

  24. Daniel
    September 7th, 2008 at 05:33 | #24

    I don’t mean to add on some of the little matches of fire some of the comments are gearing towards, but if you all really want to explain the concept of face with some examples of common incidents or events, I really do think many non-Chinese…or Americans in particular, can understand and given the appropriate context, they may care about it.

    There’s a lot of generalizations or common representations of the Chinese people which many people from around the world can comprehend (or tolerate-accept), especially from the “Old world” or those with very strong attachments to an Ancient culture or very family oriented background. At least, that is the impression I get when reading and interacting with the non-Asian foreign residents and students in my area.

    I don’t know if this is related to the topic or not, but I often think about this “ren qing wei” (人清味 I think) I hear quite a lot from some my Chinese (mainly from Taiwan and Malaysia if it matters) friends and aquanitinces in describing their interactions with each other and non-Chinese (or non-Asians in a broader sense). Like, well it’s also a generalization, maybe a bit mean but they way they explain it to me, it seems to make sense. For example, they tell me how when they were in the States or other western societies, how a lot of the locals don’t think it terms of “ren qing” yet between each other, and their fellow Asians (including most of the continent, not just East Asia) they can sort of establish a higher level of intimate feelings or relations….there’s a lot more than what I said and it’s not quite simple but,

    I’m trying to remember what else but if it’s not on-topic then forget what I said but if it is, any opinions? or not.

  25. RMBWhat
    September 7th, 2008 at 06:22 | #25

    Well, let me just tell you this, some Chinese are seriously sly and will do whatever it takes to advance their own agenda. You have to watch your backs around these Chinese, cuz they will cross and stab you in a sec. They will take advantage of you without batting an eye because your are foreigner. Hell, they don’t give a damn about their own countrymen. Also some Chinese people think a typical American as “simple,” because they believe that in China people’s relational politics is complicated. For example, I’ve lived spent most of my life in the “country”, and compared to say your typical Beijinger I am “simple.” I dont’ like complicated “relational politics.” I don’t have lots of expriences in complicated “relational politics.” But if you are a “city slicker” and breath multi-complex-relationships on a daily basis, then you will know how to deal with these types of Chinese.

    Chinese relational politics can be quiet complex. Or it’s what some think anyway, but I don’t know whether it’s true. Hell. Speaking from personal experience I’ve not experienced this aspect of Chinese society much, and I’ve think may be over-blown. But my Chinese relatives and friends all make the claim that I will have problems if I ever come back to live in Beijing for example.

    Then you got these other Chinese types that are really honest, and is actually polite.

    But really take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. LOL. I think just deal with it like you are living in a “big city” and be aware of all the baggage that comes with complex human relationships then you will be alright.
    In other words, use common sense and don’t get played.

  26. Jerry
    September 7th, 2008 at 06:49 | #26

    @TommyBahamas

    #21

    Tommy, “Face” is in the American culture in a different manner. It is in the Jewish culture, too. Most people do not like to be wrong, do not like to be humiliated and ridiculed, do not enjoy embarrassment, and do not like to be laughed at. Yet it happens in life. Learning can be a very humbling experience.

    It’s just that “face” does not seem as important in American culture, in general, as it does here in Taipei. Here, “face” seems to be more important, a stopper if you will. In the American and Jewish cultures, we seem to know how to recover. Yes, it takes time sometimes. Here, it seems more difficult to recover. Hence, “face” as practiced here, seems to hold people back far more than in the US.

    Jewish people, toughened by generations of persecution, seem to be better than most Americans at dealing with humiliation and ridicule. We seem to recover quicker. I think our “emotional pain tolerance” is higher. As I have mentioned before, we have also survived “Yahweh” (God) who was always disappointed with us, would not send us the messiah, and/or angry with us. ::smile:: Surviving persecution and Yahweh has its benefits.

    Here is an example of a situation which is occurring currently. The Republican candidate for vice-president, Sarah Palin, has an unmarried, pregnant 17 year old daughter. 50 years ago, possibly 30 years ago, that would have been a “no-no” in the US. Generally not so now. I wonder how that would be treated here in Taiwan or in China, dà lù?

    BTW, Bai Ling’s movie, “Face” dealt with some very personal issues of face inside a small family. While movies are basically dramatic, it made me think.

    And who can forget the Southwest Airlines’ “Wanna Get Away?” ads. Somebody does something very embarrassing and the announcer cuts in, “Wanna Get Away?” The rest is an ad for SW flights.

  27. Jerry
    September 7th, 2008 at 06:57 | #27

    @TommyBahamas

    #26

    Tommy, I should have said #23.

  28. RMBWhat
    September 7th, 2008 at 07:03 | #28

    Well, I don’t think teenage pregnancy is a huge problem in China. China is much more open to safe sex and abortions versus “conservative America.” Also if the daughter of some CPP big wig got pregnant I doubt it would be all over the news.

  29. September 7th, 2008 at 07:20 | #29

    @Hemulen (#16)
    Absolutely. We all use nonverbals a lot, no matter what culture we come from. I said that more than once in the post. It’s just that Americans and Chinese use nonverbals in a different ways and in different amounts, so they can easily misunderstand one another. But I don’t understand your objection to the advice you quoted. Yes, everyone needs to pay attention to nonverbals. And those authors are saying that, in China, Americans need to pay attention to nonverbals more than they do in America. It doesn’t mean nonverbals aren’t important in America.

    @TommyBahamas
    ha, glad you liked the drinking post. those guys are great… just now finished chatting with them, actually. To clarify my “doomed to miscommunicate” comment – yeah, a little dramatic. 🙂 What I mean is that our “best judgment” should be informed by an understanding of the basic differences involved.

    @Jerry
    I think I misread you – sorry. My first comment was aimed more at pug_ster anyway. I included you just because I’d seen that you chimed in with him. I remember your introduction from another post; glad you’re here with the perspective you bring. Also, I share your dislike of the word “expert.” Those are just throw-away subtitles meant to space the text. In this case, the “experts” are academics, not media-friendly, Cosmo-mag style “experts.”

    @TommyBahamas, @Jerry re: “face”
    I knew people would get hung up on that. I had no room to elaborate and hesitate to do so, b/c “face” is a much more complicated (and foreign) topic than verbal/nonverbal differences.

    No doubt Americans care about pride, shame, status, etc. But they think/feel/behave regarding those things in a very different way from most Chinese. I realize that some people talk about facework in American culture, but to do that they have to redefine the term “face” by broadening it out (and watering it down, in my opinion). Personally, I think it’s unhelpful to use “face” to describe American culture, because it suggests more commonality than there really is regarding that particular culture dynamic.

    If you want to say “there is ‘face’ in American culture, too,” fine. But the ‘face’ of American culture and the ‘face’ of Chinese culture are so different that (i think) it’s more helpful to give these two dynamics different names. When I use the term “face,” I am by definition excluding whatever the corresponding dynamics in American culture may be.

    But regardless of definitional nitpicking, maybe this rewording of the statement in question suits you better (means the same to me): “Chinese-style “face” concerns are so foreign to Americans that most Americans at first aren’t even aware of the dynamic when it’s in play. When it’s pointed out to them, they have a difficult time getting a basic understanding of it, and even when they do start to understand, Chinese-style “face” concerns often seem unnecessary at best and detrimental at worst.”

  30. September 7th, 2008 at 07:29 | #30

    Everyone,
    The comments are interesting for the most part, but we’re chasing a lot of different topics. I’m hoping for some specific criticism regarding specific problems with the way I’ve described this particular Chinese communication style. Help a 老外 get a clue! 🙂

    @the Chinese readers:
    Does this description accurately describe typical Chinese interpersonal communication?
    If not, in what specific ways is it inaccurate?
    How could it be improved?

  31. TommyBahamas
    September 7th, 2008 at 07:44 | #31

    @Daniel,

    人情味 ren qing wei, now that’s something I was deeply impressed with which was mentioned in a HK drama made into movie. This old merchant, the family patriach, filled with joy and emotion said to the young kids (overseas returnees)who were moved by the kindness shown to some wayward clan member, “年青人呀, 人情味, 外国人是没有的.” Now, I don’t know if this is true…..Perhaps this is someone’s
    the script writer’s prejudicial statement…In any case, here’s another saying, regarding laws and order, “法律不外是人情.” 当然,这个人情,不是个人的私情,而是符合大多数人利益的人情。***(The Law is but to support human altruism — collectively)****
    You hear similar philosophy in old Kung Fu movies, “To learn Kung Fu is to strengthen the body in order to serve/protect ones’ country.”
    ***Perhaps someone else could do a better translation than me.***

  32. ChinkTalk
    September 7th, 2008 at 08:18 | #32

    Sorry to detrack from your topic – I would like to bring people’s attention to the plight of Carolyn Tam who has Leukemia.

    Please visit: http://www.SaveCarolyn.com

    With all the Chinese people in the world, is there a possibility of a match?

  33. TommyBahamas
    September 7th, 2008 at 08:22 | #33

    @Joel: Chinese-style “face” concerns often seem unnecessary at best and detrimental at worst.”

    I am not myself “pro – face” either, I am learning this face thing myself. I totally agree that: “our “best judgment” should be informed by an understanding of the basic differences involved.” However, as a Chinese myself, I have to learn what matters as a face / pride issue from one chinese person to another. For example, Fujian people in general and Gunagdong folks have different “face” sensitivity. Northerners are different from Southerners etc.The rich, the intellectuals, the cityslickers and the country folks – as we say, “different village different customs;” Just have to learn to adapt by showing respect thru body language, gift bearing, honor the elders, hug the babies, blah blah blah.”

    I agree that “face” matters, as Daniel put it: ” [especially to those from the “Old world” or those with very strong attachments to an Ancient culture or very family oriented background”

  34. September 7th, 2008 at 08:29 | #34

    @TommyBahamas
    One thing I would love to see are some studies on facework differences between men and women in China. I mean, I assume there would be some differences there, and along other lines as well (regional, generational, etc.). If you know of anywhere to read on that, I’d appreciate the info!

    Personally, I’m trying to reserve my judgment on ‘face’ because I know I am only beginning to grasp it. Right now, it doesn’t look very good from what I can see, but I can’t see very much, so I wait. This dissertation was interesting, though.

  35. Daniel
    September 7th, 2008 at 08:50 | #35

    My Chinese is at the level of a toddler (I’m really not kidding) but as close as I can think…how it would sound in my head.

    法律不外是人情.” 当然,这个人情,不是个人的私情,而是符合大多数人利益的人情

    “The Law is not beyond human sentiment. Of course, this human sentiment, it is not the private kind, but a collective form of benefits…human sentiment.”

    If I disect it further, I’m guessing on a whim, that it’s saying the laws are not above humanity…because even though it is or should be blind and straightforward, it is still based and revolves around people, not just a charter to use and marking off rights or wrongs with punishments. Take is as negative or positive or ambiguous. Then it goes on by saying how this human sentiment is not a private contract, not something one makes a deal with another individual or possibly how the individual feels. The human sentiment should be one which everyone understands and benefits from, something that binds us all because of it’s strong relevance in everyone’s lives, regardless of their status. I am guessing on a big plank so if it’s wrong correct me.

    Also that small line Tommybahamas got from an HK drama…I personally have heard that before. Let me say this as a stereotype…among many ABCs, when faced with such things, one can viewed as prejudice however, taken in context, it doesn’t have to be. It is sort of well-known, maybe among us, that many Chinese will not leave someone out in the cold, even if you are related quite vaguely. I don’t know if it’s different from you guys in Asia, but possibly the hospitality trait is more cherished overseas for several reasons. There are a lot of issues with relationships where we live, but it’s not everyone is immune from that. Yet, I have to admit, a lot of the older folks find the actions and behavior of the locals can be a bit selfish and insensitive….a very generalize but almost borderline reality, take for example how people treat their parents. Also a host of other issues that I think many of you who immigrated to other countries might have notice given time. Of course, it all depends on the individual. In fact, we are not the only ethnic/cultural group that sees this as well.

    I hope this doesn’t sound very prejudiced.

  36. Daniel
    September 7th, 2008 at 08:56 | #36

    Actually, I think 法律不外是人情 could also mean Give the laws…aside from that is human sentiment. Meaning of the laws are but human etc.

  37. pug_ster
    September 7th, 2008 at 16:52 | #37

    @Joel,

    I really don’t understand what is the big deal of those ‘white lies.’ Heck if I go to a bar and try to hit on a young lady and ask her for her phone #, what are the chances that she will give me the real one? Maybe it is just a hint that she doesn’t want to see me anymore.

    Your poor example is just the same as what I am referring to, that people try to weasel out of their way so they don’t want to meet or do business with you.

  38. S.K. Cheung
    September 7th, 2008 at 17:41 | #38

    To pug_ster:
    “what are the chances that she will give me the real one?” – LOL, that’s a good one, the epitome of the little white lie.
    I agree, don’t see the big deal with this. Happens everyday, the world over, I suspect.

  39. S.K. Cheung
    September 7th, 2008 at 21:34 | #39

    To pug_ster:
    just thinking about your last example. When you know the score, and she knows the score, and you know she knows, and she knows you know, then everyone is playing the charade with a tacit understanding.
    Problems arise when people don’t know each other’s ground rules for playing the game. But that’s not just a problem for foreigners in China; once again, examples the world over, i would think.

  40. pug_ster
    September 7th, 2008 at 22:11 | #40

    It just remind me that the ‘white lies’ that I do at work regarding vendors who nag me all the time trying to sell me crap. I make up different excuses all the time. They know that I am lying yet they still call me and I don’t feel guilty about it.

  41. September 7th, 2008 at 23:20 | #41

    @pug_ster
    This isn’t about white lies, or any kind of deception. It’s about Mainlanders communicating honestly with their communication style, but Americans misunderstanding and (often) concluding that they were lied to (because the Americans use a different communication style). Obviously all our cultures use white lies… ‘white liess’ is an English term, afterall. I’m telling the Americans that Chinese people *aren’t* lying to them… at least, not any more than their American friends do. Nimrod’s #7 is helpful.

    I realize that my example is not the best because it can be interpreted in more than one way. I still think it works well enough, though, especially if the reader has read and understood the rest of the article.

  42. BMY
    September 7th, 2008 at 23:25 | #42

    I agree with Wukailong : ” 含蓄 and 婉转 are not Chinese-only concepts.”

    I’ve been working with all different people:Anglo-saxon background, Slavic background, Chinese, Arabic, Indian .”White lies” happen to all and we all understand.

  43. September 7th, 2008 at 23:33 | #43

    @BMY
    Right, but our cultures don’t all communicate white lies in the same way. Sometimes we can mistake a person’s honest communication for a white lie, or worse, a real lie. I’m not accusing Chinese of lying more than anyone else. I’m saying Americans often mistake Chinese people’s honest communication for lies (white or otherwise). See my #41 and Nimrod’s #7.

  44. pug_ster
    September 8th, 2008 at 00:52 | #44

    @Joel,

    I think you are making assumptions that Chinese like it ‘when you lie to them,’ compared to Westerners, when in fact they do not. I think most Chinese try to be courteous however, some Westerners takes it in the wrong way. As you talked to those people who you do you want to tutor, they do not take offense as they take the hint that you are not available, so they will use another tutor. Sometimes I know that my co-workers lie to me to get out from a jam and this is normal.

  45. TommyBahamas
    September 8th, 2008 at 01:13 | #45

    Joel #41: It’s about Mainlanders communicating honestly with their communication style, but Americans misunderstanding and (often) concluding that they were lied…
    …a lot of it is just common sense. You need to be more sensitive and in-tune with body language and cultural cues. Nimrod#7,

    My, Oh my, ….The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young. I quote others only in order the better to express myself….: Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much.
    Therefore, may I share a lament instead:

    I heard a thousand blended notes
    While in a grove I sate reclined,
    In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
    Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

    To her fair works did Nature link
    The human soul that through me ran;
    And much it grieved my heart to think
    What Man has made of Man.

    Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
    The periwinkle trail’d its wreaths;
    And ’tis my faith that every flower
    Enjoys the air it breathes.

    The birds around me hopp’d and play’d,
    Their thoughts I cannot measure,—
    But the least motion which they made
    It seem’d a thrill of pleasure.

    The budding twigs spread out their fan
    To catch the breezy air;
    And I must think, do all I can,
    That there was pleasure there.

    If this belief from heaven be sent,
    If such be Nature’s holy plan,
    Have I not reason to lament
    What Man has made of Man?

    William Wordsworth Written in Early Spring

  46. Damai
    September 8th, 2008 at 02:06 | #46

    @Tommy Bahamas #11

    I don’t think it’s necessarily just a North American thing (though I am from North America). And keep in mind, for most people, annoyance at Da Shan is kind of a joke. When I lived in the northeast, we’d always get this response when we chatted with anyone: “哇噻,你的中文很厉害!但,还是没有大山的好.” To which most of us would mutter (in good fun) under our breath “该死的大山!”

    That being said, the man’s got a true mastery of the language and he’s definitely carved himself a niche. It’s not a niche that would work for me, but I respect the man for it. 😉

  47. TommyBahamas
    September 8th, 2008 at 03:27 | #47

    Daniel #35 #36

    Thanks for helping with the translation. If your “chinese is at the level of a toddler,”
    then you are hanging out with a toddler or yourself — with Noam Chompsky’s IQ 🙂

  48. TommyBahamas
    September 8th, 2008 at 03:30 | #48

    @Damai “该死的大山!”

    LOL…I watch Da Shan at least a couple times on CCTV9. Some of those Lao wais are really good, especially that beautiful American lady who parrots Da Shan in the studio. 😉

  49. TommyBahamas
    September 8th, 2008 at 03:32 | #49

    @Damai “该死的大山!”

    LOL…I watch Da Shan at least a couple times on CCTV9 every week. Some of those Lao wais are really good too, especially that beautiful American lady who parrots Da Shan in the studio.

  50. Wukailong
    September 8th, 2008 at 04:06 | #50

    ‘大山啊,地方话,他都懂!他都懂!连“没门儿”都会说!’

  51. Daniel
    September 8th, 2008 at 06:41 | #51

    Oh my, what flattery Tommy!

    I sort of pick up this attitude from school of critically looking at literature and scrutinizing every sentence and word with such details. I want to apply it with other topics, but I guess because english is quite precised with so many words to use.

    Speaking of Da Shan, I think a couple of weeks or so, I heard something on the radio (a nation-wide program I think) regarding this man. Something about explaining the differences between comedy in China and elsewhere. A very knowledgeble man I think. Although for some reason, lately the awe of seeing non-Chinese looking people speaking good mandarin is getting less and less remarkeble. Maybe like the whole issue of globalization and learning different languages is getting to an important status.

    A friend of mine joke how I commented about her fiance being able to speak some Chinese phrases, and sing a song as well…though not as fluently as others but still awesome considering he is one of those midwestern folks who hardly travels outside the region. My reaction towards his speech was “about time” I was half joking as well but I mean they were serious for 6 years + dating. The friend said my comment was so “Chinese”.

  52. RMBWhat
    September 8th, 2008 at 07:00 | #52

    Dude man, Da Shan got me freebasing “nao bai jing.” Iz da bomb yo!

  53. chorasmian
    September 8th, 2008 at 10:43 | #53

    @Joel,

    Although white lies are no uncommon in any cultures, I think it is more usual and acceptable in Chinese culture. There is an interesting difference in medical practice protocol between western countries and Mainland China (not sure about other Asian countries) can backup this point of view. In China, when a severe illness is diagnosed, the doctor always breaks the bad news to and discusses with the family first instead of the patient himself. Consequently, some end-stage cancer patients don’t know his own health condition till pass away. Such management is serious breach of medical code if happened in western countries, while it is routine in China. Several years ago, there was a research showed that the majority of Chinese prefer not to know the truth in such scenario. Anyone accuses it as lying only because his ignorance in cultural difference. Just as my grandpa, he believed that the moral standard of westerns is similar to animal, because they know nothing about Confucian.

    Regarding your questions, the answer is yes and no. Because we can’t tell who is a TYPICAL Chinese. The sample that use changing phone number as an excuse works perfectly well with traditional Chinese. The problem is that 100% traditional one is extremely rare nowadays. Almost every Chinese locate at somewhere between tradition and modernized. In another word, if you were that Lao Wai in that sample, it doesn’t matter which way you choose. Either way works, especially for a Lao Wai. The key point is you need to give your friend the impression that you value the friendship in DAILY contacts.

  54. September 8th, 2008 at 11:22 | #54

    DA SHAN! 🙂 I have a special relationship with Da Shan:

    “As a Canadian language student in China I have a special, complicated relationship with Dà Shān, whom I’ve never met. During my first few months of language study in Tianjin, it seemed every other sidewalk conversation went basically like this:

    ‘Where are you from?’
    ‘Canada.’
    ‘Oh, Canada! Dà Shān’s country! Do you know who Dà Shān is?”
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Your Mandarin isn’t as good as his.’

    I took another couple months before I learned to say, ‘Yeah, and I hear his Mandarin is probably even better than your’s!’ Dà Shān is the ultimate language and culture acquisition role model, with his flawless Mandarin and mastery of traditional Chinese stand-up comedy. As annoying as it is to be constantly compared to his virtually unattainable standard, he got a good rise out of our crowd that night [Olympics Opening Ceremony], and I was proud to have him representing the Canucks.”

    (from a post on my own blog)

  55. September 8th, 2008 at 11:28 | #55

    @pug_ster (#44)
    “I think you are making assumptions that Chinese like it ‘when you lie to them,’ … when in fact they do not.”

    You are misunderstanding my point. I’m saying that Chinese people usually aren’t lying to their Western friends, but sometimes their Western friends mistakenly think that they are. I’m also saying that Americans should learn to communicate better through nonverbals with their Chinese friends. I’m not saying people should lie to Chinese people.

  56. September 8th, 2008 at 11:36 | #56

    @chorasmian

    Thanks for that advice about the daily contacts. that’s one think that’s hard for me, is that it seems like Chinese friends expect much more regular time with their friends than my Western friends do. it’s something i’ll have to keep learning as we live here.

    About not telling people they’re going to die: I was completely shocked when I first learn about that. It was explained to me the same way you just did… most people apparently don’t want to know. I believe you, but I don’t understand that at all. I talked about it here: If you were terminally ill, would you want to know?

  57. September 8th, 2008 at 12:34 | #57

    @Wukailong
    在天津他们说“没门儿!“

  58. pug_ster
    September 8th, 2008 at 14:13 | #58

    @Joel #55

    I don’t understand what are you getting at when you are writing ‘Chinese people like it when you lie to them’ and thinking Westerners think Chinese lie to them. Why did you put that stupid youtube video? So the question is maybe why can’t Westerners can’t trust Chinese. Perhaps Westerners have alot of mistrust towards Chinese thanks to Western Textbooks and Media putting a negative light on the Chinese ‘Communist’ people for decades.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2001/04/27/MN199998.DTL

    On the flip side, I find have many Western acquaintances who make empty promises to me that they could never fulfill. Which is why that Westerner is just an acquaintance and not a friend.

  59. ChinkTalk
    September 8th, 2008 at 14:20 | #59

    Joel – which part of Canada are you from

  60. Charles Liu
    September 8th, 2008 at 16:47 | #60

    Just an unsoliticted opinion from someone who’s spent limited amount of time in China, I think Joel’s “lie to me”, thou speak some truth about the tactfulness in communication, is made somewhat in jest.

    Perhaps if the table is turned, some Chinese guy might joke about “why don’t you hit me over the head with a bat?”, in reference to the directness Americans/Canadians tend to communicate.

  61. pug_ster
    September 8th, 2008 at 17:52 | #61

    @Joel

    To go back to your example. If your teacher would not have told you to ‘lie’ to them, what would you have done? Would you made promises to those people that you will tutor them, and won’t be able to fulfill your promise? I rather have someone to give me excuses that he/she can’t fulfill his/her obligation than someone who made a promise but can’t fulfill it.

  62. Zickyy
    September 8th, 2008 at 18:39 | #62

    Joel

    China is a vast nation and have people from different regions, backgrounds and education levels. The differences are often bigger than those between say, English and French, English and Americans. I don’t agree with western people who try to generallise China, no matter in a positive or negative way. We cannot even do it ourselves.

  63. September 8th, 2008 at 23:36 | #63

    I was a bit of the mind that the perspective presented here by Joel (not keen on the title) was a bit of a over generalization – too simple and black/white.

    But then I sat down with a new Australian friend last night and listened to his story. He was having a bit of a communication problem with a new Chinese friend of his. He was a bit of a blunt bull lost in a porcelain store. But the more he felt disconnected in communication, the blunter he got. As I was listening to his story, I could just imagine the sort of cultural horror from the Chinese side. As my friend would get more blunt, his Chinese friend would get more indirect.

    My advice was to him was to punt. I gave him some tips on how to deescalate the situation. Unfortunately, I think he still thinks you “gotta tell it like it is.”

  64. September 9th, 2008 at 00:11 | #64

    @pug_ster

    You are completely misunderstand the meaning of my post. I’m not saying what you think I’m saying. I can’t make you understand, but I’ll try to answer your comments.

    The video is just for fun. That’s all. The post talks about lying so I put a song that talks about lying. Also, I didn’t put the video in the post, the Fool’s Mountain admin did (I originally just put a link).

    The title says ‘Chinese people like it when you “lie” to them.’ When I put quotation marks (“”) around the word “lie,” it’s a hint that I don’t really mean lie. In this case, writing “lie” refers to the mistaken perception that Americans sometimes get, when they think that their Chinese friends are lying to them. It has nothing to do with Western media or textbooks. Americans don’t sometimes think their Chinese friends are lying because they’re prejudiced against Chinese people. Americans sometimes think their Chinese friends are lying because Chinese and Americans typically use different communication styles, and to Americans, the common Chinese communication style sometimes looks deceptive. I’m saying that Chinese people aren’t lying – that it’s just a communication style difference. Please see Nimrod’s #7.

    @Zickyy
    Three replies. First, among the people I know personally who study China we often say, “There are many Chinas.” We don’t mean politically, we mean that there is a great diversity in China, and what you learn about one place might not apply to a different place.

    Second, Chinese people generalize about China (and everyone else) more than any other people I’ve ever met! “We Chinese…” “Our China…” “Your America…” Of course, as soon as a foreigner uses this kind of talk, the reply is often, “We’re not all the same!” In fact, I’ve heard my teachers use that complaint against foreigners and use the phrase “We Chinese” all in the same class.

    Third, I’m not saying every single Chinese person is the same. But I am saying that the communication style I’ve described about is very, very common in China and generally applies. I also think it is helpful to talk in these broad categories so long as we remember that individuals are individuals.

    @ChinaTalk
    Vancouver!

  65. Wukailong
    September 9th, 2008 at 00:16 | #65

    I have to say, as a non-American but a “Westerner”, I tend to find many Americans too blunt or aggressive. While the willingness to talk to random people as if they were long-term friends is charming, it is not as charming when you meet the same person the next day, think you might have begun developing a friendly relationship, and the person acts as if he doesn’t know you. It’s not an experience limited to me – I’ve heard many people describe the same thing.

    On the whole, I like Americans, but the above is one the cultural differences I’ve observed quite often.

  66. Daniel
    September 9th, 2008 at 00:24 | #66

    Hi Mutant Jedi,

    I have a theory (not in an condescending matter at all) regarding your new Australian friend, but it’s not related to his and his Chinese friend’s cultural background. I think you or anyone else might understand what I’m talking about. Without going in further details, communication between Chinese themselves can sort of run into issues comparable or possibly worse than that case.
    I want to leave it at that because there’s a uncomfortable measure regarding judging people, especially if we don’t know them personally.

  67. chorasmian
    September 9th, 2008 at 02:05 | #67

    @Joel

    The friendship with a Chinese people can be roughly divided into two levels, brother (兄弟情谊) and ordinary friend, but there is not clear boundary between them.

    The former is similar to brotherhood in westerns (为朋友两肋插刀). With this relationship, you will be treated as an insider (Remember the “内外有别” I mention in another thread?), and you are allowed to be very blunt. You can even do something with negative impact to him, if he believes it is out of good intention. The closest friend is even closer than his wife (兄弟如手足,女人如衣服). If this kind of relationship is what you want, intensive contacts are essential at the beginning to build up a good impression. However, when the foundation is done, it can last decades without further contact. Bear in mind that your Chinese friend will never and is impossible to declare the level of the relationship. You can feel it, but you can’t prove it.

    The ethic of friendship in Chinese tradition is under the concept “义气”. Though someone might be uncomfortable with this analog, I think it can be described as an long term investment. The more effort you put in, the more immunity you can expect. On the other hand, as the price, the more privacy/personal time you need to give out. Every interaction between both of you will make the fund up or down at different scale.

    However, don’t be scared by this complexity. Because you are a Lao Wai and expected to have different perspective. Try harder to explain your difficulty/inconvenience and your intention to help when refuse, you can avoid losing score. For example, you don’t want to give phone number when asked. You can suggest “How about we go Yum Cha next Sunday?” after refuse because he wants to practice English and you want to communicate with Chinese locals. (Mmm, it raise another topic about paying restaurant bill in Chinese way)

  68. BMY
    September 9th, 2008 at 03:16 | #68

    chaorasmian said well and I just want to add on. “义” in friendship is part of Chinese culture and have been promoted for thousands of years. “桃园三结义” story has been inspired and “关公” has been worshiped partially because of the “义“。

    Another interesting thing I noticed is : the local people normally say something like “the two brothers(or sisters” have very good relationship like good friends. While Chinese normally say the two friends have very good relationship like two brothers. I am not going to argue there are bad relationship between brothers. I just see the culture difference in this regards.

  69. TommyBahamas
    September 9th, 2008 at 03:34 | #69

    Wukailong : “While the willingness to talk to random people as if they were long-term friends is charming, it is not as charming when you meet the same person the next day, ”

    You are So Right about that!
    Fool me once shame on me….

    Excellent comment, chorasmian. Bravo!
    Hey, can someone explain the exact meaning of “君子之交淡如水”

  70. chorasmian
    September 9th, 2008 at 04:08 | #70

    @TommyBahamas

    “君子之交淡如水” is from Taoism, not Confucian. They are different philosophies. In general, Taoism is more concentrate at personal self discipline, while Confucian is more on social level.

  71. TommyBahamas
    September 9th, 2008 at 04:43 | #71

    Thanks chorasmian.
    Good thing we have both, and now we are learning the non-chinese social style with much hardship
    and sacrifices, but with relatively less kvetching, if I may say so. Ops, did I say something ….? 🙂

  72. September 9th, 2008 at 05:30 | #72

    Thanks guys, esp. chorasmian. Those kinds of comments are helpful to me as a foreigner in China.

    @Wukailong
    I’ve heard similar things from non-American Western classmates and friends. The Americans (and sometimes the Germans) get singled out as being particularly blunt/literal/tackless by other Westerners. It’s tricky to find a balance between writing inclusively, but also respecting important relevant differences. For example, if we talk about a China/Western difference but only referred to America, the rest of us (non-Americans) might feel left out and resent being represented by Americans. Yet this particular communication problem (not hearing Chinese nonverbals) happens most often with Americans than with Brits, who tend to be less direct,. So I try to single out the Americans but still not totally exclude the rest of us.

  73. TommyBahamas
    September 9th, 2008 at 06:06 | #73

    Joel,

    Last weekend, I was invited by my buddy to check out his new apartment. He calls himself a southern gentleman. There was a Vancouverite, and another from Atlanta, USA., all white males, and I was the only Asian. If you were there you would see four absolutely different personalities. Mr. Atlanta, a soft speaking man, hardly said anything. At first, I thought he was from Calgary or Medicine hat etc., where folks are a lot more modest or somethihng. Mr. Vancouverite who has lived in both Taiwan and China for 4-5 years was more outspoken but he was very reluctant to criticize as freely about the Chinese people as “the gentleman from the south” buddy of mine was. Incidentally, this buddy of mine who calls himself a southern gentleman also has made quite a few enemies too. So, yes, “the Americans get singled out most for being blunt/literal/tackless,” owing to certain “bad apples'” like my ex-American white boss who tried to screw his chinese stuff their last months’ salaries when he sold his company. Canadians are better liked both in HK and in China as far as I know, while the brits, like the chinese are harder to get to know but once a friendship is established, my british friends are quite similarly dependable as chorasmian descriptions of good chinese friends are, barring the usual exceptions.

  74. September 9th, 2008 at 06:33 | #74

    I loved the article you quoted. It took me at least a year of living here in China as a foreigner to learn to communicate and to keep from getting too frustrated. I still get frustrated at times, but I have learned to be a bit more discerning (I think). There are two different kind of people who “lie” to me, or rather who communicate “non-verbally” as was said:

    1) A middle man/woman. Most often I find myself misdirected by a person sent by “the boss”. At first I got mad because they would directly tell me things I knew that they knew weren’t true. I’ve come to feel a bit of compassion for the position that they’ve been put in, though. After a bit of time I’ve come to be able to read what they’re saying, realizing both what they personally think and what they are required to say. I have many friends who are middle men and we’ve both learned a lot from each other.

    2) The Boss Man. When these people misdirect or “lie” to me, I still get highly agitated. When it comes to the boss, all this non-verbal communication stuff goes out the window. In China, misdirection and withholding of information are one of the few keys to power, and they know exactly how to wield these keys. I realize why they do it, but despite any cultural differences, I alwaysl lose just a little bit of respect for a person who is worried more about retaining power than cultivating relationships.

  75. pug_ster
    September 9th, 2008 at 15:13 | #75

    @Joel #64

    Nimrod’s #7 explains the difference in the way of communication between Chinese and Westerners. However, you with your poor example nor nimrod can explain what kind of difference in communication would make a Western distrust the Chinese.

    You don’t think that Western Media can influence on how you think about people. Think about this, countries that the Western countries hate like in North Korea and Iran. Would you think people in those countries are any more distrustful? Yet unlike North Korea and Iran, China receives more of the criticism because they are an more of an open country and does not agree on most Western philosophy.

    Personally I don’t think it is because of the difference of communication but because they are living as a foreigner in a foreign land. My parents live who is Chinese in a neighborhood where in a mostly Italian neighborhood. She would not learn English nor try to follow the customs there. If the foreigner won’t somehow try to assimilate into the culture of the place that they live in they will live in perpetual paranoia of the people there.

  76. pug_ster
    September 9th, 2008 at 15:49 | #76

    @Josh #74

    Unfortunately, there are many Western Bosses out there as well, including my former one, who lies and deceives in order for them to get to the top. I doubt that it has anything to do with a cultural thing.

  77. September 9th, 2008 at 23:51 | #77

    @pug_ster
    sorry, but, I still think you’re misunderstanding, and I’m running out of ideas.

    “you with your poor example nor nimrod can explain what kind of difference in communication would make a Western distrust the Chinese.”
    The entire article is one big explanation of a specific kind of communication difference that often results in Americans distrusting their Chinese friends. That particular example near the end is of a Westerner learning to use a more ‘Chinese’ (more nonverbal) communication style.

    “You don’t think that Western Media can influence on how you think about people.”
    I think virtually everything we expose ourselves to affects us in many different ways, especially entertainment, commercial, and news media, in every country. But this topic isn’t about media and politics.

    “Personally I don’t think it is because of the difference of communication but because they are living as a foreigner in a foreign land. …. If the foreigner won’t somehow try to assimilate into the culture of the place that they live in they will live in perpetual paranoia of the people there.”
    pug_ster, learning to understand and use the communication styles that locals use is one big way a foreigner can try to fit in and better understand their local friends and coworkers. This whole article is about helping Americans in China “assimilate into the culture of the place that they live in [so they won’t] live in perpetual paranoia of the people there,” to use your own words.

    I asked for feedback from Fool’s Mountain readers because I assume that my description of that typical Chinese communication style is a little inaccurate. I want to make it better.

  78. Wukailong
    September 10th, 2008 at 04:20 | #78

    @Joel (#72): Sure. Also, I hope I don’t sound too negative on Americans in general. Some of the most generous and hospitable people I’ve met have been in the US. It’s just a certain category of people that tend to come off as very blunt and kind of strange to me.

    Let us also not forget that some Chinese have a very blunt side, especially when commenting on how people look… 🙂

  79. Wukailong
    September 10th, 2008 at 04:30 | #79

    @pug_ster: “You don’t think that Western Media can influence on how you think about people. ”

    Sites discussing Chinese issues seem to exhibit Godwin’s law to a great extent, except that Hitler has been exchanged for “Western media”.

    I’m sorry if I’m too blunt here (which is one of the things being under discussion), but how many of the people who mention “Western media” has any experience of it, even the experience of growing up under it? In China, newspapers like 环球时报 constantly lambast “Western media”, but a lot of people who criticize it haven’t even read a line from it.

    Anyway, while there is quite some bias going on in “Western media”, it doesn’t portray Chinese people as horrible. People in the West, in general (I dare say), do not think of Chinese as scary and unreliable, and there simple isn’t a trend of such reporting. Any negativity is against the political system, and for ideological reasons, not because of any innate hatred for Chinese.

  80. pug_ster
    September 10th, 2008 at 14:27 | #80

    @Wukailong,

    Sorry, but I don’t agree with you on that one. Sometimes the when there is negativity towards the Chinese political system does transcend towards to the people in China. You can disagree with me all you want, but why else would there be Asian Americans would be seen negatively? Unfortunately, most white dominated White societies want to somehow portray them superior culturally, intellectually or some what like that, and you don’t even know it.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2001/04/27/MN199998.DTL

  81. September 11th, 2008 at 13:32 | #81

    @Wukailong: “…Chinese have a very blunt side, especially when commenting on how people look…”

    Haha, no kidding? (关心 talk: so offensive it’s funny)

    It might be fun fishing for some Chinese responses to how I’ve described that aspect of Chinese culture… maybe I’ll get around to submitting it here. That blog post also found itself cleaned up an in a local expat magazine. You Fool’s Mountaineers better correct my stuff before I mislead the handful of Tianjin 老外 that actually read that magazine! 😀

    My wife and her friends bring home hilarious stories from the gym locker room of the stuff the old ladies will say to them (Please stop paying attention to my…), but most days we can get that kind of treatment just by stopping to talk on the corner with the neighbourhood bike repair crowd.

  82. Wukailong
    September 13th, 2008 at 01:53 | #82

    @pug_ster: Hmm, missed this one.

    Thanks for the article you pointed me to. I can only say, however, that it in no way proves that bad media reporting is behind it all. I think of it as racism, pure and simple, and in the case it is this bad, it’s the responsibility of the government to make people more informed. Before you say it’s naïve, think of other ways.

    “Unfortunately, most white dominated White societies want to somehow portray them superior culturally, intellectually or some what like that, and you don’t even know it.”

    I know about it, though it would be much worse 50 years ago. It’s again, one of these things that will allow to rot and fester when the mainstream doesn’t care. Here in China I meet cultural superiority too, though I don’t bother too much. How many Chinese families happily accept intermarriage with white and black people? Is it because of negative coverage of local media?

  83. snail
    September 13th, 2008 at 21:16 | #83

    First, western people also lie. It seems to me that western people never have negative comments on food cooked by friends. If some food is really unacceptable to them, they may say ‘special’ instead of ‘delicious’. Even in restaurants, people seldom have negative comments, although the restaurant reviewers may be very tough. But Chinese often have honest comemnts on other people’s food.
    So the imporant thing is to know under what situations peole tend to lie.

    Second, how to refuse people’s request for english tutorial? To be hoest, your example surprises me. I have live in Beijing (which is very near Tianjin) for 8 years. A Beijing guy will probably give people his pheone number, but lie when people request the tutorial (he may say he is very busy or is being visited by a friend, and thus only be able to do the tutorial two months later). It is not so normal to refuse giving phone number to others. In the case that a boy courts a girl (or vice versa), the latter may refuse giving phone number by lying (that is a polite way to say ‘NO’).

    Any way, good luck.

  84. YellowFaceCaricature
    September 14th, 2008 at 07:30 | #84

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XDMkXgh-ko
    The fact is the media don’t give a **ck about Asians. LOL. In Amerkkka it’s okay, perfectly okay, to hate on Asians.
    KARAMA KARTRINA… LOL LOL LOL.

  85. BlackFaceCaricature
    September 14th, 2008 at 07:35 | #85

    So what? That’s how we roll in America. If you don’t like it go back to China.

    Little Chinamen get swept away… LMAO.

    Let’s see how the translator translate this one.

  86. RMBWhat
    September 14th, 2008 at 08:39 | #86

    You two are retarded!!!

    This one is for both of you…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0X7Kvv9aT-8

  87. shellyuan
    September 15th, 2008 at 14:03 | #87

    My foreign friend once complained to me that she thought Chinese people are unrliable,because she invited a chinese girl to have dinner with her,she agreed but didn’t show up at that day.She was confused how could someone forget something she committed.However ,I told her in China,people will confirm before leave,or it could be autamatically cancelled.Most of the time ,it’s not about honesty,but cultural difference.Want to know more about chinese culture,visit http://hellomandarin.com/

  88. whatever
    April 22nd, 2009 at 23:37 | #88

    forget the truth i have lived in china for many moons little white lies are very common but if you dig deep those little lies what you call them go very deep with every part of daily life i dont care who you are they will talk shit behind your back and its funny what you will hear when they think you cant speak chinese so to hell with your little white lies and fuck chinese head games

  89. Lord_D
    October 29th, 2009 at 05:00 | #89

    Well is it lying when someone says “that it is not a lie”. Is that statement True or False? In general what you might call a white lie Chinese speak in tongues, lets not forget the local dialects that are not Manadarin PuTongHua. Once they start using their local dialect you can forget it. They might not be lying to other Chinese, but you are open game.

    Lao Wai

    Even wonder why there are not more foreign people in China that have lived there for lets say 1000 years or so???
    I mean if they were so open to new ways and ideas surely having foreigners there would be the greatest. The Chinese will never change, and given their druthers a recent survey showed 64% of all Chinese would not like to be reborn Chinese. So what’s not to like?

    It is very simple you cannot trust or believe a liar, no matter how it is presented. Their communications is for THEIR people. How will they talk to the rest of the world??? I think it is their problem. There are other non verbal ways to communicate and sometimes they are military intervention. Enough said.

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