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Chinese Conversational Norms
by Valerie Sartor
2012-07-18 07:49:55
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Chinese and English speakers have significant differences regarding their interactions with others. When young speakers learn their native languages, they also are being socialized to acquire traditional values and patterns of behavior specific to the culture of their language. Those who acquire a language as an outsider must also learn the social and cultural patterns in order to communicate effectively. This means that Chinese is linguistically as well as culturally challenging for native English speakers.

One communication difference between Chinese and Western people concerns presentation of self. A traditional Chinese person is modest as an individual, while proud as a member of a group. During introductions, he always presents his family, his company, or any other group he is affiliated with in a positive light.  Moreover, for traditional Chinese, it is considered polite to mention family when introducing one’s self, or even to mention national heroes and ancient sages. In contrast, many Westerners consider this information unusual or unnecessary. But for Chinese people, especially in formal situations, the point of introductions is to determine everyone’s social rank. Regarding foreign guests, Chinese people also want to determine how outsiders feel about their country and their culture. In contrast, Americans introduce themselves, and present themselves as individual achievers. Affiliations are also important, but secondary.

Another difference in communication regards silence. Most Americans can’t stand silence; it makes them nervous. But silence for Chinese people is regarded as a sign of respect. Certainly Chinese, like everyone else, love to talk. Restaurants and bars are loud, lively places in Beijing and other cities. But it should be noted that patterns of distribution of talk, including how topics are sequenced, including who controls the topic and the talk, are all governed by Chinese relations of respect.

Sometimes Chinese people show social distance via silence; the opposite can also be true.  For example, children, being less powerful than adults, greet teachers and elders in the classroom and in public places. But young people will not spontaneously approach a teacher or adult, without being acknowledged in some way. This lack of initiation is also respectful.

Like Americans, the Chinese person who speaks first is the one who establishes the topic of conversation.  But there is a great difference if the two people engaging in conversation are not the same status. If a Chinese is talking to a superior, he will engage in face work, speaking to the addressee of family, health, or small talk, before beginning to speak on the more serious topic. This delay shows respect. In contrast, many high level western businessmen and academics simply want to save time and be addressed directly; the delay is confusing and annoying. 

Third, to regulate conversation, the Chinese language has embedded linguistic signals that are much more specific than anything in English. Certainly English and Chinese share some linguistic norms; they both use intonation as a way to signal a question or a statement, with rising intonation at the end implying a question. They both have tag questions; “You like fish, don’t you?” (Xi huan yü, dui bu dui?). But Chinese goes further, with specific particles that cue the listener as to the expected response. The particles a, ba, ma, and ne are unique and indicate the speaker’s attitude. They can signal action, agreement, explanation, proposal, or contrition. The relative position of a speaker determines the use of particles, and how the listener reacts to these particles helps the speaker decide which topic is appropriate, or which topic needs more elaboration. Additionally, these particles help the speaker feel out the emotional undercurrents of the listener, as information or requests are conveyed through words.

Over the years, I’ve taught many Chinese. Even when fluent in English, they have told me that English remains a difficult language - because it is harder to monitor emotional responses. The conversational traffic signals clearly delimited in Chinese are absent in English. Cultural differences, especially the ambiguity of social class and rank among Americans adds to this confusion. 

At the same time, American friends have told me they are confused as well by Chinese speaking English to them. “Why all the weird chit-chat?” they ask, not understanding that this surface talk is a way of searching for common ground and establishing social hierarchy. English speakers want the purpose for the interaction stated directly and immediately. By the time a Chinese friend has done this, the American is either not listening, or assumes that his Chinese pal has nothing of import to convey.

In sum, it’s crucial for anyone learning Chinese to also acquire Chinese communication patterns. Do not assume that language acquisition is simply a matter of grammar and lexicon. All languages carry culture and traditions. Learning ‘ways of speaking’ will enhance your interactions, give you face, and help everyone understand each other.



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Eva2012-07-18 09:09:53
Fascinating. And yes learning a language is much more than just learning grammar and words. The context is so important. I've noticed this even with languages much closer to each other than Chinese and English. No wonder there are so many misunderstandings in the world. Interesting article and topic!

Emanuel Paparella2012-07-18 12:16:53
Indeed Eva, tha statement on the right by Fellini says it all: "a different language is a different vision of life." On the other hand the linguist Noam Chomsky reminds us with his "deep grammar" that we have a common humanity and even languages has a foundational unity despite their differences expressing different experiences.

Leah Sellers2012-07-20 05:46:59
Delightful informational piece regarding the structural and social nuances of language, culture and tradition.
Oh, the variances between 'Knowing Face, Showing Face, Shoving Face and Turning Face'.
Simply put, no matter where you are Communication is always a complexly complicated
Tool of Exchange.
Thank you, for reminding us of this Ms. Sartor.

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