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Dr. Algirdas Makarevicius

Language Use in Context


Comparison of Chinese and Western Cultures


It is not possible to learn to speak another language well without learning a great deal about its culture. Conversational rules are specific to a given language just as much as the grammatical rules are. We can see this in a process as basic as greetings. For instance, the way English-speaking people greet a friend is rather fixed. In most cases, people use very familiar expressions like






Good morning!


How nice to see you!


On other occasions, you might hear something a little less common, such as


Well, if it isn’t my friend Ron!


This couldn’t be true!


Fancy meeting you here!


The above greetings are all examples of phatic communion, or talk that has very little content and that is performed only for the sake of politeness and establishing the channel of communication. After all, the phrase “good morning” will be used no matter what kind of morning it seems to be, good or bad. In terms of register, we would say that in phatic communion the field  (or “what”) is devoid of content and the focus is on the tenor (or “who”), in terms of establishing a basic contact for interpersonal communication.


Phatic communion is also important in the type of casual conversation known as “small talk”. Suppose you and a stranger are waiting at a bus stop for a long time. How long will it take before the two of you start complaining about the bus service? The complaint is an instance of phatic communion. Once the bus comes, it is likely that you will get on and stop even looking at each other.


Often when strangers find themselves sitting together on a train they feel the need to say something. Again, the sense of what topic is acceptable is culturally determined. The British are well-known for talking about the weather. Chinese in the same situation are likely to complain about bureaucracy, mismanagement and official corruption.


This may all sound quite simple and familiar to you, but there are some subtleties that might not be apparent at first. For example, consider the stage of phatic communion that comes right after the initial greeting in English. After saying Hi, Hello, or Good Morning, conversations in English are likely to move on to the following exchange:


A: How are you?

B: Pretty good, thanks. And you?

A: Fine, thank you.


The great majority of the responses will simply say “fine” or “Pretty well”, “OK”, “Not bad”, “Great”, etc.


It would not be acceptable to treat this seriously as a question and give either a long response or one that is in any way negative, such as recent health difficulties.


Another subtlety which students of English often get mixed up has to do with the difference between greetings and introductions. For example, what is the proper response when you meet a person for the first time and he or she says, How do you do? – You probably know that you should not answer this question Fine, or Thanks. Instead, the proper response is to repeat the same question, How do you do? Or to say It’s nice to meet you. Here the interrogative-form sentence How do you do? And the statement-form sentence It’s nice to meet you, have exactly the same discourse meaning. They are both formulas for a special type of phatic communion that occurs only when meeting a person for the first time.


On every subsequent meeting, even if a long time has passed, you must use a different set of formulas. With someone you have met before, the interrogative-form question changes to How are you? (or How are you doing?) and the statement-form question changes to Nice to see you. Many Chinese students, even those who have a very strong command of English vocabulary and grammar, will persist in the mistake of greeting friends with the expression, Nice to meet you. This is unfortunate because it makes the impression right at the beginning of the conversation that the speaker does not really have a command of English discourse rules.


You might find all of this somewhat bewildering or off-putting.  And some students, on learning the discourse rule that How are you? Must be answered with a positive answer, say that it shows English speakers to be insincere people.  That is a dangerous attitude to take. It would be better to simply accept that different cultures have different ways of doing things. And you will find that the system of greetings in Chinese is no more or less logical or “sincere” than that in English. It is best to respect the differences between any two languages and cultures.


How do we greet people in Chinese? – Of course the most common greeting is Ni hao!, which students of Chinese find easy to learn. However, we also use some greetings that do not translate very easily into English. For example, it would sound strange if we greeted foreign students and teachers at a party either of the following:


You have come.


You are here.


They might well think: “Why is he saying that? Of course I’ve come. Should I have stayed away?”


Similarly, a Chinese college student may see her American teacher on the street and greet her by saying:


Where are you going?


If the teacher is kind enough as not to be offended that you seem to be poking into her business, she will likely take your words at their sentence meaning (which, in English, would be the same as their discourse meaning) and stop to explain whatever errands she is running. After all, she has no way of knowing that in doing so she is forcing you to listen to things you never intended to hear.


Another expression used in many Chinese dialects is the following:


A: Have you eaten?

B: Yes, and you?

A: Yeah.


Here, the rule is very similar to the English rule about answering “How are you?” The discourse rules require you to respond by saying either “Yeah” or “In a moment. If you say “No”, you put the other person in an embarrassing situation where the pressure is on them to offer to take you home for a meal.


Misunderstanding easily happens in cross-cultural discourse. While greetings in English may sound empty and lacking in sincerity to a Chinese ear, Chinese greetings may strike English speakers as rude and intrusive. In both cases, the person who is offended would be better off if they had a bit more cross-cultural sensitivity. In communicating across cultural and linguistic boundaries, it is important to learn to trust people’s intentions and to take with a grain of salt ant comments that seem inappropriate.


Another area of potential cross-cultural miscommunication has to do with the giving and accepting compliments. Young Chinese may seem shy, cool, and perhaps even lacking in manners to middle-class Americans. Yet the common compliments doled out by middle-class Americans, women in particular, often seem overly sweet and even pretentious to a Chinese person. First, let us have a look at the following examples.


Why did you tell me not to stay for your talk? It was fantastic!


You write extremely good papers – better than almost anyone I know.


Your baby is really adorable. Such a doll!


Your husband is such a handsome young man!


Your wife is just a movie star. Absolutely beautiful!


You look terrific in this suit.


Also strikingly different is the way people respond to these compliments. Such difference may lead to unfair stereotypes about a foreign culture. Consider the following conversation between two colleagues.


American: I enjoyed your report to the committee. You really did a nice job.

Chinese: Oh, no. It was nothing.

American: No, it was really wonderful. I love it.

Chinese: That is my duty.


Here, the American gives the kind of strong, direct praise that is the norm for colleagues in this situation. The Chinese, rather than accepting the compliment (which would be the American way), refuses it.  This causes the American to repeat the compliment in even stronger terms, which just causes the Chinese to push the compliment away even more. In the end, the American is probably not impressed by the modesty of the Chinese, but rather disappointed that he seems to take no pride in his work.  To the American, his Chinese colleague seems to have the mercenary attitude of just working for money or just doing what he is told.


Consider the same situation in reverse, when a Chinese is complimenting an American.


Chinese: I enjoyed your report to the committee. It was very good.

American: Oh, really? Great! I really put a lot of time into it.

Chinese: I…, um, like it.

American: Thank you. Thanks a lot.


Here, rather than pushing the compliment away or refusing it, the American enthusiastically accepts it. This causes the Chinese to feel that he must offer it again, and the American again accepts it. The Chinese is probably left feeling that his American colleague is incredibly arrogant and thinks no end of himself.


What conclusions can we draw from these mis-fired exchanges?


For one thing, using “Thank you” as response to compliments in English is something Chinese students may be fully aware of but have difficulty using appropriately in their own speech. In Western cultures, “Thank you” is used everywhere to express appreciation of whatever favour is done to the speaker, no matter how small. For example, Americans who have just made a small purchase will often say “Thank you” to the shopkeeper rather than “Good bye”. And the shopkeeper may also say “Thank you” to them.


In the Chinese culture, by contrast, frequent use of “Thank you” among close friends and family members will make you sound as trying to distance yourself from them. Overusing “xiexie” (=thank you in Chinese) is one of the basic discourse errors made by Westerners who are learning Chinese.


Learning to say “Thank you” in appropriate situations is also made difficult by the fact that compliments may contain words not used in the same sense in Chinese as in English. For instance, in English the word sexy usually carries a positive connotation and is often used in compliments.


That dress looks really good on you. You look sexy.


You are really sexy in those jeans.


You are such a sexy girl!


Very few Chinese can say “Thank you” upon hearing these compliments. Many, especially women, will be offended and get angry.


In the end, I will tell you a true story that shows how manners differ from culture to culture in the practice of accepting gifts.


A well-known American linguist and translator, at the end of a successful lecture at Nanjing University (in China), was applauded and presented with a pictorial album as a souvenir. He did not act as a Chinese would in this situation. Instead of insisting that he did not deserve such an honor, the professor opened the book and went over the pictures one by one and making remarks such as “Beautiful!”, “Look at this!” and “Oh, I love this one!” A student in the audience commented to her friend.


Student: Look at that old man. He is greedy.

Friend: All Americans are.


Of course, the student was wrong in making that judgment. The professor was not greedy. Rather, he was trying to respect his hosts in accordance to the rules of his culture, by honoring and praising their gift. In fact, it is entirely possible that he did not like the gift much at all, but was praising it only out of respect for his hosts.


The conclusion should be clear. Learning a language is learning a culture. Language learners need to learn not only to speak the language but also to use language to do things in a way that is appropriate in the culture where this language is used. Therefore, in cross-cultural communication we should never jump to conclusions quickly, especially on the basis of a few remarks. We should be sensitive to the ways in which another person’s cultural norms may be different from our own.


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