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How Do You Say "Yes, Please" in Chinese?
by Valerie Sartor
2014-10-07 10:34:43
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Many kinds of linguistic means and strategies exist for achieving politeness in Mandarin Chinese. These communicative patterns are cultural and not easy for foreigners to understand. To put it succinctly, Confucius said, "By nature we converge; by custom/habit, we diverge." Simply put, people from all cultures are endowed with the same hardware; it's our cultural hardwiring that makes us different. As an educator interested in language, I feel that language use captures and shows differences in how we express ourselves via our specific cultural norms.

Basically, as humans, we all can agree that we share similar needs and desires. Differences arise in the ways we express and carry out our elemental needs and desires. Specifically, how people make choices regarding politeness does not always easily translate across cultures.

In China, the concept of face, (self-image) and the avoidance of face threats to self and others, has great influence on how people routinely communicate with each other. Sometimes Chinese politeness strategies meant to preserve face have historically hindered efficient communication, both domestically and internationally. The question is: given a culture that has emphasized rites rather than rights for millennia, what does politeness mean to modern Chinese?

Firstly, I have observed how Chinese culture still allows the so-called inferior in a communicative act not only can make requests through deference, but also he may manipulate his superior via this same deference. This means that one’s superior may be obligated to grant requests or to act generously, if approached correctly, in order to show his peers and/or the world his magnanimity and generosity to his inferiors. Thus, Chinese politeness, in the past and in the present, can serve as a weapon for those in inferior positions.

Politeness is also a signal of intimacy or lack thereof. Notably, among the Chinese, a simple matter such as saying "thank you" or "excuse me" can be viewed as distancing, insulting, or insincere among intimates. Close Chinese friends do not thank each other and have repeatedly told me to “stop saying thank you all the time!” Chinese consumers, unlike Americans, rarely thank service personnel such as clerks, waitresses, or salesmen; it is simply not done.

Significantly, the Westerner’s definition of face as a kind of public self-image neglects the Chinese cultural point of view. In China, face encompasses more than one's private person. Chinese and other Asian cultures take a broader view of self and face, which includes those in one's social and family networks.

Such networks do more than tie people together for social interactions. Instead, Chinese people bond by ongoing, nurtured exchanges that entail reciprocal obligations and mutual considerations. Hence, gift exchanges, requests, refusals, and loans can become very complicated. In addition, Chinese culture has long had traditions that respectfully acknowledge differences in status. Take for example, the fact that a Chinese inferior should make the first move in greeting exchanges; add to that the notion that only inferiors are addressed by their personal names. Westerners, especially Americans, with their issues of social justice and affirmative action, are often disturbed by these cultural patterns; some may even find them offensive.

Yet such norms are even built into the Chinese language. This repertoire includes special suffixes, particles, and reduplicated verbs, all of which are voiced to either to soften or to vivify or to convey cooperation or commiseration. In effect, the very grammar of Chinese has innate attributes designed to establish hierarchy, protect face, and to express politeness.

Traditional Chinese culture also nurtures specific ways to express politeness. Take, for example, the Confucian sense of social hierarchy, strong family ties, and today’s ongoing stress on moderation, modesty, and prudence. Contemporary Chinese are still known to put others first and show respect for their elders.

Interestingly, within these cultural expressions linguists have identified three politeness strategies. The first is termed familiar politeness. It strives to develop greater warmth and closeness between interlocutors by expressing special regard toward the person being addressed. This person’s virtues, abilities, achievements, even possessions, might be greatly praised.

The second strategy represents a kind of respectful politeness. This communicative act seeks to place respectful distance between the interlocutors. It may define the addressee's need for privacy, autonomy, or freedom from imposition.

The third strategy of politeness linguists have named as off record politeness. This communication sounds ambiguous to foreigners. It is specifically meant to help the person being addressed to escape responsibility, or to avoid losing face, by letting him or her get off the hook.

Furthermore, to show politeness, a Chinese might address his neighbors, friends, and even strangers and serious lovers as kin. To show deference, he might refer to a commonality in dialect or locality, or recognize a shared status as old schoolmates or former work mates. In other situations, a Chinese might verbally acknowledge his teacher/student relationship. Regarding language usage, a Chinese might use the specialized pronominal use, that is, zanmen (inclusive we). To avoid arguments, he might respond vaguely or tell white lies. This may confuse or anger English speakers.

Additionally, in greeting people, Chinese politeness strategies are more direct than those in English. They may address health: "Have you recovered yet?" or ask about eating: “Have you had your breakfast/lunch/ dinner?" When Chinese say goodbye and wish to express politeness, they will chide their guest: "Be careful, button up, it’s cold outside" This concern is not nagging; instead, it reflects respect for the status of their guest. Finally, in contrast to American English speaking norms, which demand attentive silence when someone important is speaking, Chinese listeners may punctuate a conversation with sounds of agreement, nods, and various speech particles that display admiration or solicitude.

Another Chinese politeness strategy involves a show of deference and a kind of softening in tone. For example, like Korean and Japanese, the Chinese language has special terms and forms to efface self and to elevate others. This deprecatory-honorific address ("my humble surname"-"your esteemed surname"), or the intention belittling of one’s work and self (my tiny manuscript/your famous book), children (my dog of a son/your brilliant son. Thus, in Chinese, there are many deferential forms for receiving and returning compliments, as well as ways to present and receive gifts, or invite people for meals and other events. Monolingual foreigners, using English or other languages, may misinterpret these diverse Chinese strategies because their native language works differently.

It should also be noted that some Chinese politeness strategies involve dropping hints, overgeneralizing, understating, and even exaggerating. This can also confuse foreigners, even those who understand some Chinese, because the speaker may make self-contradictory statements, or employ rhetorical questions, and irony. This has happened to me many times.

But for the most part, Chinese tend to be deliberately vague. They like to avoid critical points of view at all costs. They abhor negative responses. These strategies cause the most trouble between Westerners and Chinese. By communicating in an oblique fashion, by obfuscating, a Chinese speaker may accidentally cast doubt about his intention or his integrity. Then, to his chagrin, if he is speaking with a Western person, his face may become threatened, and he may even be criticized. If it is another Chinese, however, with whom he is communicating, the fellow addressee will certainly understand his implications and his intentions, allotting the speaker much leeway. Thus, vague comments may be entertained or ignored, with no loss of face.

I hope I have offered a glimpse, my dear reader, of how language is so intimately connected with culture. Although I have studied Chinese, sometimes assiduously, sometimes without much gravity, I still doubt that I will ever be able to master and understand Chinese politeness strategies. All I can do is count upon the goodwill of my Chinese friends, who generously help me translate my good intentions toward them, and who humorously accept my grammatical follies.


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Gretchen C. N.2014-10-13 09:17:27
Excellent teacher, incredible writer/editor, its no wonder she received her PhD with distinction. No one works harder than Valerie and puts her heart and soul into her work.

ken2014-10-13 15:23:10
The differences in culture are often hard for me to understand, whether they be subtle or overt. I like articles like this one that uncovers the sometimes forgotten relationship between language and culture. Perhaps if we all get a better understanding of other cultures it will make the world a more pleasant place to live.

Linda2014-10-16 10:01:14
This is a very good article with deeper insight into Chinese Culture. Ms. Sartor's effort to introduce Chinese culture to the world is of great significance, since she has bridged Chinese people with other nations in the world. Every culture is a unique and valuable work of God. Diversity makes the world an interesting place to enjoy. Understanding and tolerance make it a harmonious place to live. Thank you, Ms Sartor!

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