A Chinaman is cold, cunning and distrustful; always ready to take advantage of those he has to deal with; extremely covetous and deceitful (“China,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 7th ed., vol. 6 ; quoted in The Things They Say behind Your Back: Stereotypes and the Myths Behind Them, p. 115)
They [the Chinese] are well-behaved, law-abiding, intelligent, economical, and industrious, – they can learn anything and do anything … they possess and practise an admirable system of ethics, and they are generous, charitable, and fond of good works, – they never forget a favour, they make rich return for any kindness … they are practical, teachable, and wonderfully gifted with common sense (Sir Robert Hart : The I. G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907 (2 Volumes), p. 27).
Among the things that most disturbed Westerners living in China was the apparent lack of ‘honesty’. One example of such views can be found in a book by Reverend J. MacGowan, who lived in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th century:
An Englishman … prides himself upon being straightforward and of saying exactly what he believes. A Chinaman would never dream of taking that position, simply because it is one that he does not understand, and consequently he could never carry out. A straight line is something that his mind recoils from, and when he desires to effect some purpose that he has before him, he prefers an oblique and winding path by which in a more roundabout manner he hopes to attain his end. It may be laid down as a general and axiomatic truth, that it is impossible from hearing what a Chinaman says to be quite certain of what he actually means (Rev. J. MacGowan : Sidelights on Chinese Life, Chapter I).
Westerners are more direct and therefore more willing to get to the truth at the expense of courtesy. Chinese, on the other hand, are more likely to favor courtesy and face-saving at the expense of truth. Western leaders are frustrated in China by the focus on courtesy over truth. Likewise, Chinese leaders are often frustrated by the expectations of foreign employees and their foreign headquarters to know quickly what is happening, regardless of the impact on “face” (Frank T. Gallo : Business leadership, p. 99).
The following anecdote, told by an American professor living in China, seems to confirm this point:
One cold winter weekend I had taken the train from Nanjing (where I was teaching English to teachers) to the famous tourist city of Suzhou, renowned for its gardens, beautiful women, and gentle dialect. At the hotel counter I set out to book a room. A group of foreign students walked by and said they had just gotten beds in the “dormitory” for ten yuan a night. I went up and said I wanted a bed in the dormitory. “We don’t have a dormitory.” This had to be a “lie,” because one minute earlier the same clerk had assigned the other students to the dormitory.“Yes there is; they got one.”
“Oh, well, there aren’t any more beds.”
“They said it was empty.”
“Well, foreign teachers can’t stay in the dormitory.”
“Why not? That doesn’t make sense.” To an American, anyway.
“You wouldn’t be comfortable. There is no private bathroom and you have to share the room… You would not be comfortable.”
“I would. I’m younger than they are. I would be fine. I don’t care about the bathroom…”
Ultimately, it was much more trouble to have me standing there arguing than to risk having me complain about the lack of comfort, so I “won”. I slept in a bed for ten yuan a night with other foreigners and walked down the cold hallway to the bathroom… [T]here were many motivations behind this clerk’s giving the answer she did, and “telling the truth” was one that was weighed rather lightly relative to other goals (Susan Debra Blum : Lies That Bind – Chinese Truth, Other Truths, p. 26).
As Susan Blum explains, the motives behind the clerk’s vagueness are hard to make out. Perhaps her boss had told her that professors shouldn’t sleep in the dormitory. Or perhaps she was truly caring about the guest’s comfort. Ultimately, the “why” of ambiguous statements cannot always be guessed. As I will explain in another post, this is exactly what makes this communication strategy so attractive and instrumental.
At this point, I think it has become clear that what used to be interpreted as ‘deceitfulness’, is in fact nothing more than a different, ambiguous communication strategy that serves precise purposes. In very general terms, this may be summarized in the following way:
Westerners are hindered in dealing effectively with face-saving behaviors because they value directness in most ordinary social situations. They prefer to state matters (as they understand them) in a straightforward and accurate manner. Westerners say “No” when their self-interest dictates that a negative reply is the necessary response. Westerners say “I don’t know” when, in fact, they don’t know … They occasionally tell white lies, but, more often, they tell it like it is even when they know that a straightforward, truthful response will not be emotionally pleasing to the other person. Westerners assume that each person is better able to advance his or her self-interest when the situation at hand is thoroughly understood by means of direct verbal communication (Hu/ Grove / Grove : Encountering the Chinese, p. 106).
in accordance with external expectations or social norms, rather than internal wishes or personal integrity, so that he would be able to protect his [or her] social self and function as an integral part of the social network. [This behaviour includes] a predisposition toward such behavior patterns as social conformity, nonoffensive strategy, submission to social expectations, and worry about external opinions in an attempt to achieve [one’s purposes] (ibid. p. 109).
In principle I agree with these statements, but, as I will explain later, I would de-emphasize the importance of submission and face-saving, and rather underscore the role of China’s peculiar social structure. I would also avoid explaining the different communication strategy as an exclusively ‘West-East’ issue.