1 Once, at a dinner on the Monterey Peninsula, California, my mother whispered to me confidentially: "Sau-sau (brother's wife) pretends too hard to be a polite recipient! Why bother with such nominal courtesy? In the end, she always takes everything."
2 My mother acted like a waixiao, an emigrant, no longer patient with old taboos and courtesies . To prove her point, she reached across the table to offer my elderly aunt from Beijing the last scallop from the garlic seafood dish, along with the flank steak and the cucumber salad .
3 Sau-sau frowned. "B'yao, zhen b'yao!" she cried, patting her substantial stomach. I don't want it, really I don't.
4 "Take it! Take it!" my mother scolded in Chinese, as predictably as the lunar cycles.
5 "Full, I'm already full," Sau-sau muttered weakly, eying the scallop.
6 "Ai!" exclaimed my mother. "Nobody wants it. It will only rot!"
7 Sau-sau sighed, acting as if she were doing my mother a favor by taking the scrap off the tray and sparing us the trouble of wrapping the leftovers in foil.
8 My mother turned to her brother, an experienced Chinese magistrate, visiting us for the first time. "In America, a Chinese person could starve to death. If you don't breach the old rules of etiquette and say you want it, they won't ask you again."
9 My uncle nodded and said he understood fully: Americans take things quickly because they have no time to be polite.
10 I read an article in The New York Times Magazine on changes in New York's little cultural colony of Chinatown, where the author mentioned that the interwoven configuration of Chinese language and culture renders its speech indirect and polite. Chinese people are so "discreet and modest", the article started, that there aren't even words for "yes" and "no".
11 Why do people keep fabricating these rumors? I thought. They describe us as though we were a tribe of those little dolls sold in Chinatown tourist shops, heads moving up and down in contented agreement!
12 As any child of immigrant parents knows, there is a special kind of double bind attached to knowing two languages. My parents, for example, spoke to me in both Chinese and English; I spoke back to them in English.
13 "Amy-ah!" they'd scold me.
14 "What?" I'd answer back.
15 "Do not question us when we call," they'd scold in Chinese. "It's not respectful."
16 "What do you mean?"
17 "Ai! Didn't we just tell you not to question?"
18 If I consider my upbringing carefully, I find there was nothing discreet about the Chinese language I grew up with, no censorship for the sake of politeness. My parents made everything abundantly clear in their consecutive demands: "Of course you will become a famous aerospace engineer," they prodded. "And yes, a concert pianist on the side."
19 It seems that the more forceful proceedings always spilled over into Chinese: "Not that way! You must wash rice so not a single grain is lost."
20 Having listened to both Chinese and English, I'm suspicious of comparisons between the two languages, as I notice the reciprocal challenges they each present. English speakers say Chinese is extremely difficult because different words can be denoted by very subtle variations in tone. English is often bracketed with the label of inconsistency, a language of too many broken rules.
21 Even more dangerous, in my view, is the temptation to view the gulf between different languages and behavior in translation. To listen to my mother speak English, an outside spectator might make the deduction that she has no concept of the temporal differences of past and future or that she is gender blind because she refers to my husband as "she". If one were not careful, one might also generalize that all Chinese people take an indirect route to get to the point. It is, rather, my mother's individual tendency to ornament her language and wander around a bit.
22 I worry that the dominant society may see Chinese people from a limited perspective, hedging us in with the stereotype. I worry that the seemingly innocent stereotype may lead to actual intolerance and be part of the reason why there are few Chinese in top management positions, or in the main judiciary or political sectors. I worry about the power of language: If one says anything enough times, it might become true, with or without malicious intent.
23 Could this be why the Chinese friends of my parents' generation are willing to accept the generalization?
24 "Why are you complaining?" one of them said to me. "If people think we are modest and polite, let them think that. Wouldn't Americans appreciate such an honorary description?"
25 And I do believe that anyone would take the description as a compliment – at first. But after a while, it annoys, as if the only things that people heard one say were what had been filtered through the sieve of social niceties: I'm so pleased to meet you. I've heard many wonderful things about you.
26 These remarks are not representative of new ideas, honest emotions, or considered thought. Like a piece of bread, they are only the crust of the interaction, or what is said from the polite distance of social contexts: greetings, farewells, convenient excuses, and the like. This generalization, therefore, is not a true composite of Chinese culture but only a stereotype of our exterior behavior.
27 "So how does one say 'yes' and 'no' in Chinese?" my friends may ask carefully.
28 At this junction, I do agree in part with The New York Times Magazinearticle. There is no one word for "yes" or "no", but not out of necessity to be discreet. If anything, I would say the Chinese equivalent of answering "yes" or "no" is specific to what is asked.
29 Ask a Chinese person if he or she has eaten, and he or she might say chrle(eaten already) or meiyou (have not).
30 Ask, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" and the answer refers directly to the proposition being asserted or denied: stopped already, still have not, never beat, have no wife. .
31 What could be clearer?
18 仔细想想自己的成长过程，我发现，我从小到大所接触到的中文并不是什么特别谨慎的语言，也不存在出于客气而对所说的话进行仔细检查的现象。我父母向我提一连串的要求时，总是把一切都表述得清清楚楚：“你当然会成为著名的航空工程师，” 他们会鼓励我说，“对了，你业余时间还要做音乐会的钢琴师。”
1 Edward Hall, a leader in the field of intercultural studies, famously said: "The single greatest barrier to business success is the one erected by culture." Can cultural differences have as big an impact on international business ventures as financial planning and visionary leadership? The surprising answer is: Yes!
2 A good example is the role of relationships in business dealings. While relationships play only a minor role in US business culture, they play a major role in Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries. In these cultures, in varying degrees, relationship building is like a torch that lights and guides the way for business to occur.
3 Let's take the example of Kevin Johnston, a senior vice-president of a US company specializing in hospitality management. Kevin was put in charge of finalizing a merger with a company in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Virtually all of the complicated negotiations had been completed. What remained was a 3-day trip to the UAE for face-to-face meetings between the partners to sign the paperwork and close the deal.
4 Kevin was determined that nothing would detain him from succeeding. He sent out a memorandum across his company, enthusiastically describing the planned merger with the UAE partners. Having compiled all the necessary documents and graphs, with every figure and decimal in place, and having prepared a thorough exposition certifying the quality of his company, he packed his briefcase and headed for the UAE.
5 Kevin arrived in the UAE excited to seal the deal. He was treated with extraordinary hospitality: an elaborate hotel, blue ribbon foods, elegant convertibles with drivers to tour the city, a parade of entertainment, and beautiful gifts to commemorate the visit. He tried repeatedly to bring out his files, open the conversation and get down to business. But, surprisingly, for the three days he spent in the UAE, none of his Emirate colleagues seemed ready to hear his financial briefing. Each time Kevin tried to speak about the deal, his prospective partners seemed to "kidnap" the conversation, diverting it to other topics. They would inquire about his health, his family or his views on education and other important issues.
6 Upon leaving the UAE, Kevin felt exasperated and defeated. He hadn't been able to receive the thorough interrogation of the materials for which he had so carefully prepared. His progress toward closing the deal was exactly where it was when he left the US: nil.
7 The above case is a classic example of how a friction between different cultural expectations causes delay that, if not handled appropriately, will bring the deal to an abrupt end and leave both sides reeling. The substantial loss of revenue can never be refunded and can leave a struggling company falling without a parachute.
8 Kevin made the mistake of assuming that the "certifications" involved in sealing the deal were in his briefcase. He charged into the meetings like a bull. For many cultures, a person's certifications are established not only by their accomplishments, their education and abilities, but also by more personal connections. In this case, the UAE partners wanted to know if Kevin was a good man, a family man, a trustworthy man. This type of rating establishes a trusting relationship for them. Had Kevin patiently taken the time to establish relationships, he would likely have been asked to share his carefully prepared documents and have closed the deal.
9 Sociologists agree that another key aspect influencing global business is the concept of face. Cross-cultural differences in the way we save face impact our perceptions of trust and respect, which in turn impact our relationships and group cohesion.
10 Take the example of Ann, a US manager who took a reactionary approach to cultural differences. Ann thought being a nominee for the leadership position with a sales team based in Singapore was a climax of her career. Ann tried to establish a working relationship with each team member. After a few weeks of working on team unification and solidarity, presenting guidelines, and offering sales advice, she carefully compartmentalized goals for each member of the sales team.
11 Later, when the team convened face-to-face for their first quarterly review meeting, Ann, after praising a Chinese team member, boldly criticized and questioned a Korean, trying to extract the exact reason why he was lagging so far behind on his goals. The meeting immediately lost its groove. The entire group became solemn and, for the rest of the meeting, remained polite but largely mute.
12 Clearly, Ann was not familiar with the concept of saving face in other cultures. In US culture, saving face exists – but only minimally, and tactful but straightforward speech is highly valued. US managers routinely speak freely about someone else's accomplishments or failures in open, public settings, such as during meetings. This is different in Asian cultures. Singling out an individual due to praise or criticism, a daily habit amongst American managers, may cause Asians to become uncomfortable or deeply embarrassed.
13 Ann needs to consider more culturally appropriate ways to support and motivate her team. Providing feedback, especially negative feedback, in more private settings will be helpful. Most of all, she should work on giving more courteous and supportive praise and encouragement, which will help move toward the unification and cohesion that high functioning teams need in order to be successful.
Around the world, deeper structures such as relationship building and face saving are embedded in the values, beliefs and behavior of a culture. They are much harder to understand than the glossary of terms in any culture's language phrase book. The advice is: Always ask for clarification and seek new insights. For business success, it is essential to learn to mediate these deeper cultural differences. Though it may be a little complicated to incorporate them into your way of thinking and communicating, it is well worth the effort!