Pearls of Miscommunication Archives

November 28, 2008

More Questions that Aren't Questions

Traveling is probably the best way to have strange cultural interactions, since it entails meeting and interacting with lots of people in a short period of time. On vacation, instead of riding my bike straight to school, getting from one place to the next requires buying tickets, requesting information from locals, navigating buses and trains with fellow passengers, and any other miscellaneous interactions.

My first trip this year outside of Beijing to less-than-fabled Liaoning province on the North Korean border was no exception. I had a second rich cultural bathroom encounter.

Before heading to the bus station for the long haul back to Dalian, I had lunch at a local restaurant. After eating my plate of bamboo shoots and lamb, I decided to make use of the restaurant’s bathroom facilities, which were likely to be much cleaner than the bus station’s—at least a little bit cleaner.

I paid the bill and asked the fúwùyuán, “Is there a bathroom?”

“The bathroom across the street at KFC is free,” she answered, motioning toward the red KFC across the street.

I thanked her and walked out onto the street toward the bus station, feeling that my need was not urgent enough to justify invading KFC’s facilities without buying anything. It wasn’t until I had made it half way down the street that I realized the fúwùyuán hadn’t actually answered my question.

Instead, she had, like the train ticket salesperson and the woman on the flight to Guangzhou who offered David her meal out of compassion, anticipated my desire and answered in the quickest possible way.

But was that what it was about? There was something very Chinese in the way she had fielded my question. For one, it was quick. To the frustration of language nerds like me, Chinese interactions are done as fast as possible with a minimum of words. If gestures or grunts work, even better.

Or maybe it was an attempt to hide unsavory information using the Chinese art of dodging a question. Perhaps the bathroom was really dirty—so dirty that she thought I would be better off going to KFC. Or perhaps the bathroom was for employees only and she didn’t want me to argue with her about whether I could bend the rules and use it anyway. The restaurant had two stories, so it was big enough that it should have had a bathroom. It’s questions like these that still nibble at my western mind days after our interaction ended.

Of course, Americans do this too, but I think it’s much less common, especially in a formal situation like this with someone you don’t know. I think in the US, the serviceperson would have responded more long-windedly, “I’m sorry, our bathroom is for employees only, but you’re welcome to use the bathroom across the street at KFC.” In this way, I could get the whole picture and make the decision for myself.

Yet what is clear to me is that her anticipation of my underlying request was something I see a lot more in China, rather than the American let’s-give-all-the-information-and-let-you-decide way of communicating.

Her response was, after all, consistent with psychological findings that East Asians are more likely to look at the whole picture under a holistic perception style. So instead of answering questions as asked, the waitress looked around at the entire picture of what I was asking, rather than at the pure, analytical words that were floating through the air.

The uncertainty behind answers like hers frustrate me during my so-called China life, but I try to remind myself that answers like this can mean either that people are making assumptions or that they’re anticipating your preferences, depending on how you look at it.

In the end, I held it until I made it all 4 hours back to Dalian. I guess it wasn’t that urgent after all. Or is that too much information?

December 18, 2008

When the Police Enforce Grammar

Thank the lord for my university-level education in Chinese linguistics. Without it, I wouldn’t know the ground rules of talking to policemen in China.

This time, the social faux-pas wasn’t mine:

In Tianjin (the heavenly fording), a Chinese friend of mine and I were looking for the historic drum tower, having discovered that Beijing’s is not the only one. As we reached the end of a pedestrian mall, my friend walked up to a police officer and asked him where the drum tower was.

Silence. The policeman maintained his gaze over my friend’s head, a mere foot or two from the policeman’s face.

Perplexed, my friend asked again.

“Excuse me, do you know where the drum tower is?”

The policeman pretended to become aware of our presence all of a sudden, and turned his face with a scowl.


“You didn’t add a subject!”

The policeman nodded grumpily in the direction of the drum tower and we continued along our way.

In explaining what transpired, there’s still controversy. My friend maintains that the original question did include a subject, but there’s still a possibility that, in haste, the sentence came out as “know where the drum tower is?”

What is clear is that the policeman’s claim that he doesn’t respond to questions that lack a proper grammatical subject or are otherwise grammatically deficient is ridiculous.

My friend’s explanation is better and a clue into unlocking puzzling social encounters in China:

The policeman was posted right at the end of the pedestrian lane, where a line of semi-legal taxis were waiting to take passengers. The policeman, my friend surmised, must be friends with the guys there, since he stands there all day. Furthermore, if he tells us how to get to the drum tower, we’re less likely to employ his friends standing nearby. To top it off, as obvious tourists, the taxi drivers are not only missing a business opportunity, they think they’re missing a fat business opportunity, since tourists are easier to rip off.

Just as taxi drivers will always try to convince you that your destination is much farther than you think, I find that I have to be more careful about whom I choose to ask directions from in China. Perhaps it’s a product of being thrown into a foreign country, but people’s social communication in China seems to be much more influenced by reasons that are not immediately apparent. Instead, I have to spend much more time surmising about other people’s strange reactions, anger, and refusals.

Either that or I’ll just have to try to steer clear of the grammar police in the future.

January 15, 2009

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.

June 16, 2009

Found in Translation (Part I)

A lot can be lost when translating between English and Chinese, but in this series I look at Chinese and English translations and find out how much is gained in translation. —————-

An American doing business in Hong Kong and China since the 1970’s started a bi-lingual blog under the pseudonym ‘Sibuxiang’ (四不像). In explaining his choice of nom de plume, he explains that ‘sibuxiang’ carries the meaning of ‘neither fish nor fowl,’ describing the author’s not-quite-American, not-quite-Chinese third-culture identity.

His posts are rare peeks into Maoist China, but they’re also intriguing in their side-by-side bilingualism, which are pinned-down examples of differences in language and culture.

In one post, Sibuxiang describes going to a store in Changsha where he asked for cigarettes in Chinese while the shopkeeper stared at him dumbfoundedly, eventually uttering, “Sorry, I don’t speak foreign language.”

Sibuxiang persisted, explaining, “I know. It’s not a problem. I am not speaking in a foreign language now. I am speaking to you in Chinese.”

The story is interesting—perhaps even more so because the same thing still happens 30 years later—but it’s also revealing in how he makes his request to the shopkeeper.

The English reads:

I said again “Comrade, may I have one pack each of these cigarettes please?” and mentioned the Chinese brand names of the ones I wanted, while pointing them out to him, one by one.

The Chinese right by the side reads:


Directly translated back into English, the request reads:

“Comrade, these cigarettes, bring a pack of each.”

‘Please’ and ‘may I,’ absent from the Chinese, had somehow found their way into the English version. Both versions sound natural in the original, but the result is different right down to the grammar: the English is a question and the Chinese is a command.

The reason is the difference in politeness norms toward servicepersons in the US and China. In China, walking into a store and getting right down to business by directing the serviceperson for what you want is perfectly acceptable. This directness might seem strange in a culture where getting people to state preferences and tell you what they want can be like pulling teeth. Yet paradoxes like these are explained neatly by the fact that behavior in China depends heavily on whether or not you know the person you’re talking to. There’s a set of politeness norms for friends, family, and coworkers, and there’s a vastly different set of norms for strangers.

When I’m in China and I’m translating from my English thoughts to speak Chinese, I wind up phrasing requests in the form of a question, as Sibuxiang wrote: “May I have…?” “Can I get…?” Two years into China and I’m still finding this habit hard to break, even though when I literally ask waitresses for certain dishes, I often see them pause for a second, trying to make sense of my strange request.

I’m still trying to break the habit of asking for dishes, but sometimes I can be resistant to change. At the very least, I’ve decided to keep thanking waitresses when they bring food to the table and shopkeepers when they sell me bottled water, despite being told numerous times by my Chinese friends that this is weird.

The standard way to say ‘you’re welcome’ in China is to say literally, ‘Don’t be so polite,’ or ‘no [need to say] thanks.’ Like most niceties, they’re spoken without making people think of the literal meaning. Yet after encountering this strange laowai, shopkeepers change their tone to one of surprise as if to say, “Really, you don’t need to thank me when you’re buying something from me.”

“That’s OK,” I respond in Chinese. “In a way, I’m speaking a foreign language.”

June 25, 2009

Found in Translation (Part II)

A lot can be lost when translating between English and Chinese, but in this series I look at Chinese and English translations and find out how much is gained in translation. —-

There’s a transparent glass sign standing in the fake Forbidden City built for the old Japanese-controlled puppet state in Changchun. The English-Chinese-Japanese glass sign stands next to the swimming pool that the Japanese invaders built for China’s last emperor. With a tone of non-judgment rare for official signs in tourist attractions, the sign reminds visitors how the emperor was not actually allowed to swim in the pool, out of respect for the custom that an emperor should not reveal his bare body.


When I look at the sign, I think of my cell phone. My Chinese cell phone loves to tell me what I should do. When I type in the character for WILL my phone suggests SLEEP. When I type in WANT my phone suggests TO CRY JUST CRY. Having a Chinese cell phone is a bit like having a pocket-sized Chinese parent.

Sometimes the suggestions of my Chinese parent help me type faster; sometimes they make me laugh; but at times they also give me hints into Chinese culture. My cell phone is to me, with its Chinese character-typing software and its ceaseless recommendations for what I should type next, a pin-down-able source of insight into Chinese culture.

Perhaps most subtle is the suggestion my phone brings when I type in le. Le (了) is a past-tense particle sometimes similar to the English -ed suffix, as in earnED, cornerED, and fillED.

Because Chinese puts all of the other when, how, and where modifiers before the verb, this le character usually comes at the end of sentences. Thus, when I type in le, my phone suggests first a comma.

Similarly, when I press the 1 key once, the Chinese software gives me a comma. It yields periods only when I hit the key again. You probably want a comma, my pocket-sized Chinese parent seems to be saying to me.

Yet the English program gives me a period first and comma second. What’s going on here?

The glass sign back at the fake Forbidden City is evidence my phone’s still doing its job. To convey nearly identical information, the Chinese uses 5 commas and 2 periods. The English cuts the explanation into twice as many sentences, using 4 periods and 2 commas.

For English speakers, reading Chinese sentences can be an exercise in short-term memory, since rules for parsing sentences are much more lenient in Chinese. Chinese speakers, on the other hand, need to be careful to avoid taxing run-on sentences when writing in English.

This advice I find easy to swallow, and I’m not adverse to my phone suggesting that I get more sleep, but the advice to cry to my heart’s content—it’ll take more than a few glass signs to convince me.