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A Clever Clue Concerning Communication Consternation

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book based mostly on cross-cultural research and work by Richard Nisbett from UM’s social cognition covers everything in cultural from its roots in agricultural styles to culture’s effect on airline crash records and communication breakdowns in cockpits.

In his analysis, he says, “Western communication has what linguists call a ‘transmitter orientation’—that is, it is considered the responsibility of the speaker to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously.” In the West, “if there is confusion, it is the fault of the speaker.”

Richard Nisbett writes: “Asians, in contrast, teach their children ‘receiver’ orientation, meaning that it is the hearer’s responsibility to understand what is being said. If a child’s singing annoys an American parent, would likely just tell the kid to pipe down. No ambiguity there. The Asian parent would be more likely to say, ‘How well you sing a song.’ At first the child might feel pleased, but it would likely dawn on the child that something else might have been meant and the child would try being quieter or not singing at all.”

This could partly explain why I seem to be so confused in China so often, as I was in Dandong.

It doesn’t stop with ticket-takers and school administrators, though. As a graduate from the American higher education system who served hundreds of students with dreams of going to the US for university, I’m often sent requests to look at personal statements for applications from my students in Guangzhou.

It’s hard work, though, since many of the essays have buried ideas and unclear messages. This could be true of the essays of American high school students, but the responses of my students lead me to believe that this has more to with Chinese culture’s receiver orientation rather than sloppy writing.

One exchange I had with a student over his essay is particularly revealing. I read the essay and wrote back:

“I’m still very unclear as to what you’re trying to communicate. The beginning in particular is hazy… . Later on, there’s more confusion… . At it’s heart. What do you want to communicate in this essay?”

The response I got surprised me: “I have to say i to some degree intended the haziness of the mood.”

Essentially, my student was satisfied with the resulting fog and was going to send the fog in with minimal changes. Unfortunately, an admissions officer is going to spend much less time and be much less forgiving in reading essays than your teacher.

These essays come from the same heritage that has produced poetry where a line like “I looked at the moon that night” actually means “I am in love with that woman and her beauty.” There’s beauty and intelligence in reading between the lines like this, but personal statements are read by American admissions officers, and true cultural competence means anticipating your reception in your new cultural environment. In other words, if you want to get into an American college, you’re going to have to write like an American, just like how I’ve had to learn to listen like a Chinese person. Or at least I’m trying.