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Maybe today is my birthday – indirect communication in China

When I was being briefed about Chinese communication styles in my preparations to come to China, I was warned that indirect communication is the preferred method of transmitting news. Today I’d like to share a few examples of this, and how woefully understated that was.

Indirect communication in China means that information (usually bad news or self-boasting) is either transmitted via a third party or through half truths. I would say that despite my other experiences, this is the more common style of communication. I have seen this manifest in several ways, and it usually involves the word “maybe.”

In fact, the word “maybe” often pops up in sentences where it has no place. One of my co-workers at one point actually said “Maybe today is my birthday.” Usually though it has a more sinister usage, like: “Maybe you need to come to work on Saturday for a meeting,” or “Maybe you should redo this report,” or “Maybe it would be good for you if that student passed.” For one reason or another, “maybe” has become the word of choice in English to make a direct sentence indirect. In Chinese the speaker has a wider range of choices, and more skill in deploying those tactics.*

This verbal tick is something I have come to understand, and I know that my co-workers are just using it as an (ineffective) attempt to blunt bad news. What is far more frustrating are the third-party attempts to inform you of something that no one wants to say. One friend was actually informed of her contract ending with a school by a student from a class she didn’t teach. The school apparently thought this was the best way to save face.

This week with my doctors I was discussing how to break bad news when a patient is diagnosed with cancer. Many of them struggled when I had them role play telling the patient directly. “Well what do you normally say when you do this in Chinese?” I asked. Most of them averted their eyes or looked down at the table, one said quietly, “We don’t usually tell the patient that they have cancer. We just let their family know. Sometimes the family doesn’t tell them either.”

While this is partially an effort to avoid confrontation (Chinese patients can get very angry when given bad news), it is also an extension of indirect communication, one that seems far from professional. Potentially terminal patients deserve to know the reality of the medical challenges they face.

I’ve even heard of families lying to their children about the death of one of their parents, opting to tell them that Mom or Dad has gone to work in another city or country. When I confronted one family about this, they said that eventually the child would figure out that his father was dead, and then they wouldn’t have to hurt him by telling him directly.

To me this highlighted the underlying assumption that somehow these people are better off not knowing the truth; that ignorance really is bliss, until you realize that your father is never coming home. For foreigners it’s hard to understand how this could possibly be face saving, as eventually all of these issues come to light, but it’s actually only the person who breaks the news who loses face. For example, the school can blame a talkative teacher for telling the students, the doctors can honestly tell the dying patient that they told their family; shifting the blame does actually avoid a loss of face (by Chinese logic).

As frustrating as this can be to a newcomer, it’s something that must be understood so that you can anticipate the ways in which indirect communication is affecting your business/career/life in China.

*updated sentence


27 Comments

  1. C.S. says:

    (1) I’m told the refusal to tell Chinese people about terminal illnesses also has to do with the Chinese conception of the afterlife. While they ARE atheists in the sense that they don’t believe in a god, many still do believe in ghosts, reincarnation, etc. Those that have these traditional Chinese beliefs tell me that the afterlife isn’t pleasant. There is ONLY a hell — there is no heaven.

    Eventually your children can buy your way out with Joss paper and you can get reincarnated (? — I’m a little unclear on this point). However, in the interim you spend centuries in a nightmare. So why stress terminally ill people out unnecessarily? Besides, the sick person will figure it out themselves towards the very end.

    (2) My Chinese friends tell me that that our direct communication makes us appear childish, naieve, and a little bit stupid to them.

    I wonder if the directness improves the efficiency of our economy, particularly in the service sector. There’s just less room for (unintentional) misunderstanding and (intentional) evasion.

    • MAC says:

      2) And that is why I always say that I would be worried if Chinese people thought I was smart.

    • Tom says:

      Without getting into Chinese conceptions of the afterlife, this reasoning would only explain why the doctors aren’t willing to discuss the possibility of death, but doesn’t help explain the reluctance to tell children that a parent has died.

      • Sepra says:

        It’s probably easier to tell a kid that mommy has gone to heaven (because she’s a nice person) than mommy has gone to hell (because there is no heaven).

  2. Chopstik says:

    Tom, what a wonderful topic to address here (no sarcasm intended)! As much as any other issue I’ve ever faced in China or in dealing with other Chinese, this has always been a problem for me. I am not subtle by any stretch (though my writing style, I’ve been told, is apparently somewhat different from my normal direct approach) and it has often been difficult for me to read between the lines of indirect communication. Unfortunately, it poses a serious problem for me regardless of whether speaking English, Chinese or Chinglish when other parties are using indirect communication. Even after years of practice, errors, mistakes and other forms of learning I still continue to struggle with it.

    I understand both the Western direct-oriented approach as well as the Chinese indirect approach but trying to reconcile the two is challenging at best. Frankly, I have resigned myself to knowing that, for me, it will simply be the equivalent of a tone-deaf person learning how to play music – often frustrating and mostly fruitless.

    Though, if anyone has suggestions for improving, I’m open to them. 🙂

    • C.S. says:

      I cannot describe the rage and frustration that occurs when, particularly men, engage in a type of emotional abuse called gaslighting and then call it indirect communication. Bulls***t — emotional abuse is emotional abuse in any culture. It’s worse when it occurs in the working world and you have no legal recourse.

      At that point, the business relationship breaks down. As it should.

      Not coincidentally, this is why I simply will not date Chinese men. It’s so embedded in the culture that the vast majority don’t even realize they’re doing it, and trying to find the one in a billion who won’t just isn’t worth the emotional scars.

    • C.S. says:

      Gargh, hit reply too early.

      But yeah, I’m in the same boat. Sadly, I don’t have any advice. I’ve kinda just given up, but I think that’s because I’ve come to interpret certain forms of “indirect communication” as an euphemism for manipulation and/or abuse.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        C.S., are you suggesting that the phenomena described by Tom is particular to Chinese men? Or that there is a particular manifestation of it in gender relations in China? Or are you suggesting a cultural conflict that has affected you personally?

  3. xl says:

    On the other hand, Chinese people can be quite blunt, like saying directly to your face “You’ve gained weight!” or “You look much older, so many wrinkles!” To them, sugar-coating is for the weak.
    This is also the first time I’ve heard the afterlife reasoning. Patients aren’t told the direct truth because doctors think that a person’s mental state has a direct impact on their physical health, ie a depressed pt will give up hope and languish. Particularly if the pt has a terminal illness, it’s better for them to spend their last days in blissful ignorance. So the doctors pass that burden on to the family, but many children won’t tell their aging parents a poor diagnosis, because talking about death is considered the height of filial impropriety. (It’s ok if the parents initiate a conversation about death but the children must say “no no no we won’t speak of that.” IF they seem willing to listen, it’s taken as a sign from our cultural perspective that you want your parents to die.) I’m not saying this way of doing things is good, but it’s difficult to change people’s cultural habits.
    When my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago, no one told her the diagnosis, just that she had to receive a bilateral mastectomy. I guess anyone else would have figured it out, but my grandmother was an uneducated woman from the countryside who had no idea what was going on. She didn’t want to talk to the doctors herself so she assumed that her 3 sons would take care of things for her – which they did. Anyway, she’s still alive and as far as I know, she still doesn’t know that she’s a breast cancer survivor.

  4. Pelo says:

    Great post.

  5. Lorin Yochim says:

    Some good points made by all. It’s an important topic, Tom, but I think your judgements on these practices/communication styles speak to your discomfort with them and not to any particular problem for Chinese. These judgements are particularly clear here: “…one that seems far from professional. Potentially terminal patients deserve to know the reality of the medical challenges they face.” Of course I would agree with this statement. The truth of this statement is clear to those from places in which individual rights are seen as the ultimate good, but obviously it is not so clear in the Chinese case. But if we think about this from a different angle, how do those of us from Western countries think about this statement: “The families of potentially terminal patients deserve to know the reality of the medical challenges they face.” Now, in China no one would seriously question this statement, and might even hold that this right is equal or even greater than the right of the individual. Indeed, the consequences for the family in China are quite severe in the case of major illnesses, consequences that go far beyond the issue of whether or not the person eventually dies. In other countries with deeply entrenched notions of individual rights and protection of privacy legislation, the information about illness is not, legally anyway, the right of anyone but the (adult) patient to know. No doubt someone will point out that I’m oversimplifying. Perhaps spouses may have the right to know, but I’m quite sure that I would, as a patient, be well within my rights to withdraw the right of any particular person to know my medical condition. Still, I think my general argument is sound. It’s true that there are negative consequences to indirect communication in the circumstances that you describe, but the notion that direct communication (in the medical example, anyway) is a panacea is suspect.

    Which leads to a question I’ve been wanting to ask. A few times I’ve wondered what your specific role in the hospital is. Is it just to help practitioners improve their English? Is it to prepare them for service in English speaking countries (perhaps I should mine the blog for these answers)? If it is the former, why the urge to “fix” the culture of communication?

  6. gregorylent says:

    this is changing, i think, if shanghai is any indicator

  7. Kelly says:

    I chuckled when I read this because it is so true! I was just talking to a friend who also lived and worked in China and we were joking about the word “maybe” being the most commonly used word when communicating with Chinese.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Taking Tom’s descriptions as a starting point, I’m wracking my brain to think of people saying anything like “maybe it’s my birthday today” in Chinese. It might help to clarify the issue if Tom could tell us if he hears this “verbal tick” in English or Chinese. This is not to deny the observation about indirect communication. I’m not convinced that the “maybe” thing is an example of this.

  8. 34f67dg72 says:

    “As frustrating as this can be to a newcomer, its something that” “its” should be “it’s”

  9. AndreasLou says:

    This maybe-thing is linguistically very interesting. Can we refer to as ‘chinglish’ when speaking of a widespread (and culturally-based, as here is the case) uncorrect use – and not, as usual, an uncorrect way to write or to pronounce?
    In Italy too is quite common not to tell a patient he or she has a terminal illness, but his family instead. And the family often does not tell the ill person what he exatly has – it happens to my Granpa, for example. I don’t know if it’s right, but if nothing can be done it can actually spare a lot of grief and sense of hopelessness to the dear relative. Fortunately, I don’t know how ‘we’ use to handle the death od a parent when the children is young…

  10. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    A very interesting post, Tom. I trained as a bereavement counsellor (www.crusebereavementcare.org.uk) but I am also old enough to remember when terminally ill people were not told the truth and cancer was not a subject for discussion. This was UK 50 years ago. There have been many “Misery Memoirs” written by elderly Brits that attest to the damage done to young children who were not told what had happened to their vanished Mums or Dads. Nowadays most people in UK would tell children the truth and allow the child to attend the funeral. And I don’t mean saying “Daddy’s gone to heaven” either! UK is largely secular so the majority of people do not believe in heaven or hell. Of course, a religious belief can be a great comfort in times of personal loss but that does not negate the psychological validity of telling a child the truth. I am sure that China will change in this regard over the next few decades. Only today, my Chinese friend returned from studying in US to learn from her sister that their father has had most of his stomach removed due to “early stage cancer”. My friend is returning to her home town tomorrow where she says she will check the doctor’s notes. This seems eminently sensible.

  11. […] morning I read a blog post (found here) about Chinese communcation, specifically about the way the Chinese communicate bad or […]

  12. […] a vacation from China. English teachers also noticed the completely unnecessary use of “maybe.”Furthermore it leaves us pondering a much bigger question – What harmful gases are in […]

  13. Potomacker says:

    This short essay has helped to put a name to such a mindboggling phenomenon that has bedeviled me since coming to China. I even start some class sessions now by banning the word, maybe, and then keeping a tally as to how many times it is used. And yes I would describe it as a verbal tic, especially when some students cannot even begin a sentence without it: A: What sports do you like? B: Maybe I very like basketball.
    It’s possible to regard this in some way as a difference between receiver and transmitter orientation. I was in a bookstore in a new city when a salesclerk approached me: “Do you know that there is a big national holiday for us?” I wandered around the empty store for a bit longer and it was not until I was outside that I understood she had simply meant: “We are closing soon.” Was there really an issue of face in that situation? It seems far more likely that the indirect manner came more naturally to her.
    Malcolm Gladwell goes into this linguistic dichotomy in a chapter called: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.
    It is rather annoying, to follow on what C.S. said above, to learn that Chinese regard the directness of foreign speakers in such a negative light. I wish I knew how to convey how absurd and needlessly obtuse their weasel words and tactics sound in English.

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