In the west, especially in the United States, an indirect or ambiguous answer is considered a lie; in China, indirect and ambiguous answers, and even white lies, are actually honest efforts at being polite and nice. What foreigners and Chinese often experience is a failure to communicate, particularly when it comes to direct questions or requests posed by foreigners to their Chinese love, friends, or colleagues.
Plenty of times they say “Yes” but mean “Maybe;” they say “Maybe” when they mean “No;” they say “Okay” but actually mean “Not really; they agree even when they really don’t; and they rarely say “No.”
Perhaps you’ve already had an experience with your Chinese girlfriend wherein a simple yes-or-no question turned into an hour-long and meandering discussion about stuff that were completely unrelated to your initial question.
When the Chinese don’t always say what they mean, talking to them can indeed be very frustrating and annoying. There might be times when you feel they’re actually being disrespectful.Even when you’re aware that they dish out white lies on a regular basis, trying to figure out what they really mean every time can be exhausting.
But have you ever thought about how the Chinese see things from their end?
Just as you may feel frustrated and offended because you see their circuitous responses as outright lies, they also feel frustrated and offended for being accused of lying when they’re actually doing their best to be nice.
What a foreigner must understand is that their “good intentions,” or the fact that they do not intend to mislead, actually makes a huge difference. White lies, after all, serve the purpose of sparing somebody else’s feelings. Your girlfriend and any of the other Chinese people you regularly communicate with do not really intend to deceive you. The problem is, you’re reading their answers wrong and, at the same time, they’re expecting you to understand what they really mean (that is, what is being left unsaid).
Most of the time, the Chinese actually honestly believe that they’re being clear about their meaning, even when what they’re saying is entirely different. Of course, this is because they’re used to being completely understood by the people from their own culture.
Your own vantage point is also influenced by what you’re used to in your own culture – not only with regards to getting direct answers to direct questions, but also with regards to people almost always having the intention to mislead and being deliberately disrespectful when they give indirect answers.
Clearly, both parties are contributing to the miscommunication by not adjusting their expectations. Another thing you, as a laowai, must remember is that because you’re the guest in their country, you will have to make the bigger adjustments.
Chinese indirectness or ambiguity, at times, does not have anything to do with deliberate deception. You may find it easier to understand how their avoidance of direct answers is actually their way of being considerate and nice when you put yourself in their shoes.
Perhaps you’ve already been at the receiving end of some Chinese acquaintances or people you just met asking you where you live or what your phone number is because they need your help to practice their English. If these are people you regularly encounter and actually find pleasant, you may feel that refusing them outright and explaining why would be impolite and would offend them. You wouldn’t want to make your future encounters with them awkward. So what should you do?
The best out is actually a white lie, and they will not only understand the implied meaning, they will even appreciate your efforts at sparing their feelings. So you can tell them something like you might be moving soon but are still deciding on a couple of options, and so you still don’t have an exact address to give them; or your phone is being fixed and you’ll be getting a new number. This is how things are from the Chinese vantage point when they are trying to be polite by saying a white lie or being indirect.
Certainly, you will have some days when the cross-cultural challenges of being in a relationship with a Chinese woman or living amongst the Chinese are worse than most. But already knowing about their tendency to be indirect and having an understanding of this behavior, you should do yourself and your Chinese relationships a favor and try not to be suspicious all the time. Deciphering their real meaning is difficult enough without complicating it further with unnecessary assumptions.
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