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UPDATED: August 5, 2013 NO. 32 AUGUST 8, 2013
The ABCs of Communication
By Valerie Sartor


People in every culture tend to regard the way they do things as "normal." This includes the communicative practices and norms that people learn from interacting inside their culture. But in regard to ways of speaking, what may seem natural to one person may be odd or misunderstood by someone outside that culture. What seems natural to the speaker is actually ritualized behavior, generated and governed by cultural norms.

Communication patterns that cause confusion center on indirect speech. Chinese and Americans can both speak indirectly, but their use of this speech pattern depends upon many factors. Context is crucial: social background and status—their economic and work position in society; geographical background—where they were born and have lived a long time; and ethnicity and identity—how they identify themselves in relation to themselves and others. Finally, the particular context in which the speech takes place is a key factor to the communicative practices people use.

The people of these two countries use indirect speech for different purposes. The way recipients of these two cultures translate the communication is also different. For example, American friends tell me that speaking directly correlates with having the upper hand: holding the power. In contrast, Chinese colleagues report that it is just the opposite: an indirect person has more power because he or she can choose to be indirect.

In China, speaking indirectly does not correlate with being subservient. Instead, it means the person is sophisticated, mature, and very much in control of the situation. Indirect speech can also be perceived as a way to show empathy or act kindly, in order to save the recipient's face. A masterful leader may state his commands directly, to demonstrate overt power, or he may mark his superior status by speaking indirectly.

Of course, this is also true in the United States. But when U.S. bosses speak indirectly, Americans often label them as weak, confusing, or disorganized. Remember, Chinese indirect speech is a face-saving technique, and is regarded as an artful way of communicating. Chinese people know how to interpret this speech, they appreciate it, and it works very well here.

Chinese leaders, like American bosses, depending upon position and context, can appear authoritarian (direct speech) or friendly (indirect speech); both are ways of asking for something to get done. But this can lead Westerners to feel confused when interacting with Chinese: When is a request, and when is a demand, being issued?

American employees also expect a polite "please" when asked to do something; they also want their bosses to thank them for their efforts. In China, however, because leaders have absolute authority, such linguistic niceties are not mandatory. Thus, a Chinese command may appear imperious to Western ears, while an indirect request may go unheard.

Danger arises on both sides of the Pacific when indirect speech is overlooked or misinterpreted. Both the sender and receiver may feel frustrated or misunderstood. In China, it seems that Westerners have more problems translating indirect requests and orders from Chinese leaders. But in the United States, friends tell me they have more troubles as employees offering indirect hints and advice to their superiors.

For example, in China, if a dean mentions that two classes lack an English expert, she is expecting me to volunteer to teach. As a foreign expert and a subordinate, I am supposed to realize that her indirect request was actually a command. In contrast, in the United States, when I worked as an assistant to my director, I had similar challenges, but with me transmitting an indirect message, rather than receiving one. Once, when I suggested politely to my boss that today might not be a good day to have lunch with Professor so-and-so (because I knew he was going to the divorce court), he did not ask me why; he did not take my indirect hint. As his subordinate, I did not want to be viewed as a gossip and say something directly; moreover, I could not tell my boss what to do with his schedule.

Effective communication is challenging. Know your cultural communication styles, and while living in China, seek to understand the differences in communication patterns employed here. If only talk were as easy as learning our ABCs!

The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region

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