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Cross Cultural Communication in China – Yes, No, and Maybe [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2014-5-31 21:12:22 |Display all floors
It’s no secret that communication between Chinese and those from foreign lands is fraught with difficulties. Even when one is communicating in Mandarin, cultural differences make direct translations impossible. Incredibly, even simple concepts such as affirmative and negative responses to questions can be ambiguous. This plays out in a number of social settings: dating, social events, the workplace, and when you’re simply trying to get to know someone like a coworker or friend. Oftentimes, simple miscommunication is interpreted in a very negative context, as if the person on the other side of the conversation was deliberately deceiving you. The goal of this article is to point out just a few of the words that can lead to misunderstandings based on their cultural contexts. By examining common misperceptions, hopefully we can bridge the cultural gaps that plague our daily interactions, and learn to communicate more effectively.
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Post time 2014-5-31 21:12:23 |Display all floors
This post was edited by Rearwindow at 2014-5-31 21:15

Yes means No

While the subject of ‘face’ is large enough a part of Chinese culture as to deserve its own article, it’s worth mentioning here. Saving face is an almost daily ritual for most Chinese, and, while often carried out subconsciously, is usually misunderstood by most Westerners. For instance, many Chinese will prefer to “accept” an invitation for an event which they don’t plan to attend, in order to not offend the host. This can be a troubling prospect for those who need an accurate number of guests when planning.  In situations such as weddings or dinner reservations, it’s often better to send an email or text message that asks guests to RSVP with an exact number of attendees.   

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No means Yes

Modesty is not just a simple, polite custom for many Chinese; it’s an art form all its own. While it’s difficult to chalk up this tradition to just one cultural source, clearly Confucianism’s emphasis on self-cultivation demands that people spend less time bragging and more time improving their character. This leads to interesting discoveries at work or in relationships, where one often finds that one’s coworker is a master badminton player, or that one’s romantic interest is an incredibly talented violinist. Oftentimes, when asked point blank about a particular ability or knowledge of something, a Chinese person will deny any large amount of skill or insight into the matter. Behind this “no” response often lurks a surprising knack for things, and it’s worth pressing the issue beyond a yes/no question format in order to get to the bottom of things. This is particularly true when Chinese speak about their own family members; they are known to jokingly deride their loved ones, even those with few significant faults. This “underselling” is also a form of politeness, but can give a distorted picture of the truth to those that take the information at face value.


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Post time 2014-5-31 21:13:13 |Display all floors

Maybe means Yes, No, and . . . Maybe!

As above, “maybe” can take the place of “yes” and “no”, depending on the situation.  When asking someone if they speak English, often the response of “maybe” or “just a little” belies the fact that they are college-educated English majors. Again, modesty trumps a more confident response such as, “Sure, what do you need help with?”  Likewise, when inviting someone on a date or to some other kind of social function, the dreaded “maybe” response is almost certainly a refusal, although not 100% of the time. And, just to make things confusing, sometimes “maybe” just means maybe, because life is just as uncertain here in China as it is in the West.

The key pointers to keep in mind are: to not take a yes/no answer at face value, to politely probe for more information if you are desperate to know “the truth”, and to understand that the possible confusion is not usually deliberate deception, but a difference between Chinese and Occidental cultures. The last one is especially important, as face-saving responses or statements are often misperceived as deliberate obfuscation. The desire to present a modest front towards the inquirer is usually just that, and not an attempt at manipulation. And, of course, it’s important to remember the role that statements such as, “Oh yeah, I’ll definitely be there”, and ,”I don’t know how it works, but I guess I could give it a shot” play in English-speaking cultures.  China isn’t the only place to offer responses that differ from their traditional meanings, and can actually mean their opposites.  


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