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.