As a foreigner living in mainland China, it’s really easy for me to pick up on all the obvious cultural differences between my culture and the one I currently live in. The spitting, the staring, the squat toilets…these are just a few of the many things that go against what I think should be “normal.”
What’s much more difficult to discern is why the Chinese do certain things.
Today, I want to focus on their style of communication. As a general rule of thumb, Chinese mainlanders are more indirect than Westerners. We tend to be more black-and-white in our communication, while the Chinese tend to beat around the bush a little more.
Earlier this week while I was in Guangzhou, I spoke about this topic with a Chinese guy working for an adoption agency. He agreed that Americans are far more direct than Chinese people. He explained, “In America, if you’re a doctor, you would tell the patient what’s wrong with him if he had a serious condition. But in China, you would only tell the immediate family, so that the patient would not lose hope.”
I don’t know all the details surrounding doctor/patient communication in China, but I do know that my gut response as a Westener would be, “What are they thinking?! Shouldn’t the patient have the right to know?”
Because of the way they sometimes withhold information or spin it a certain way, the Chinese come across to us as vastly indirect…and maybe even a little deceptive.
Now let’s look at a different example.
Suppose a woman is paying for her groceries at a supermarket in America with her child. Suddenly, the child begins to cry and the mother is unable to console her child. What is the typical Western response for the people who are in line behind her? If you’re like me, you would probably ignore both mother and child entirely. Or if you’re a little more sympathetic, you might offer some encouraging words to help defuse the situation.
What would happen if that same incident were to occur in China? The exact opposite. Everyone would start chiming in with their five cents. She’s wearing too many clothes! She’s not wearing enough clothes! You need to feed her! (Any Western parent living in China will confirm this is the truth.)
Part of this culture seems to allow for public commentary/criticism of what we in the West would regard as private, such as the way you parent your children.
I have concluded that Chinese people are, in fact, both direct and indirect. But I still have a long way to go when it comes to knowing when it’s appropriate to be direct and when it’s better to be indirect!
What have you experienced when communicating with people from China? Have they been more direct or indirect with you? Which style of communication do you use when speaking with Chinese people? What differences have you noticed between Western Chinese and mainland Chinese?