Chinese People: Direct or Indirect?

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.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

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?


8 thoughts on “Chinese People: Direct or Indirect?

  1. I think a big one is the inability to directly say ‘no’. For example when a Chinese mainlander doesn’t want to attend an event, they feel the need to find excuses and reasons for not going. I can say this is quite true in my life haha!

    • Yep, I have heard this is true also. It makes me a little worried that they might think I don’t want to attend their even if I actually have a legitimate reason not to attend, like a previous commitment. Perhaps I don’t fall under those rules since I’m a foreigner…

  2. From experience, I’ve found Asians from Asia (mainly Chinese from Singapore, Malaysia and China) are more inclined to criticise compare to Asians living in the West and Westerners. The former like to see the negative in things and in that sense are very direct.

    However, definitely agree with you the Chinese can be deceptive. In the workforce, many of them in Asia don’t hesitate to throw gifts and money at their colleagues to seal a deal – under the table dealings. In Australia, this is unheard of. Contrary in the Western workforce, you get a feel there is a degree of honesty around – lots of consultations and consulting projects with all stakeholders before any deal or project is finalised. Not sure if all these consultations are a waste of money, but that is another story for another day.

    • Do you think Asians from Asia “like” to see the negative things, or is it because they truly cannot see anything else at all? Sometimes I wonder if their focus is so squarely bent on perfection that it it’s too difficult for them to do anything other than criticize. Or maybe it’s a face thing.

      • From the Asians from Asia I’ve met, it seems natural for them to look at things from a negative perspective. Because of this I’m inclined to think that’s their way of seeing things. Not all of them are the hardworking kind, though.

        But you may be right: when you’re striving to be perfect (perfect grades, perfect at doing all extra-curricular activities etc.), you need to be aware of the pitfalls in your path to “success” all the time.

  3. Hey Chris!
    Just wanted say I’ve taken some time to read through your posts from this summer. I enjoy reading your observations of interactions with Chinese culture. I had never thought of Chinese people being both direct and indirect. It seems like we notice it most because we would do the opposite in certain situations.

    • Thanks, Reb! Yes, I think we all have a sort of internal alarm that goes off anytime we run into something that’s different from how we would act or respond. Haha.

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