My Chinese ain’t great—and that ain’t great—but it’s shielded me from making some egregious cross-cultural faux pas, while allowing a front row seat to watch many with excellent Chinese totally fail to communicate and seemingly never realize the problem. Most of my expat friends, with truly high-level Chinese language skills, are surprisingly dumb about how they communicate in Chinese. They endlessly use their superior language skills to [unintentionally] alienate, frustrate, and exasperate the Taiwanese. They understand what they are saying at the nuts-and-bolts, vocabulary and sentence pattern level, while being tone-deaf to what they are conveying at the higher distal level. When it comes to languages, I may be an underachiever, but I’m not an idiot. So let me tell ya, one of the most common mistakes many expats make when speaking Chinese is their insistence on using logic.
The Enlightenment was absorbed into Western culture over two centuries ago, and now logic is core to how most Westerners comprehend the world. If something cannot be proven logically then it is wrong—it’s that simple. Most regard this as an objective, irrefutable, truth, and can get kind of pissy when Taiwanese just simply disregard their carefully constructed A + B = C arguments as irrelevant fluffery. It is provable reality after all, and thus by definition the central truth at the core of whatever is being discussed.
Not so fast whitey.
Asia experienced the Scientific Revolution differently than the West. The Scientific Revolution is generally considered to have reached China by the 18th century, but it didn’t have such a revolutionary effect. Society just kind of putzed along largely unchanged. Historians debate why the Scientific Revolution didn’t originate in China, and why its impact on Chinese society was relatively small. Was it that Chinese society already had an advanced system for explaining natural phenomena and didn’t feel a need for scientific enlightenment? Was it that Western knowledge was only allowed limited freedom to spread outside court? Whatever the reasons, for our purposes it’s good enough to know that scientific logic holds a different—less preeminent—place in the minds of a large percentage of present day Taiwanese.
Beyond historical explanations, I believe the structure of the Chinese language itself has led to a certain distrust, and possibly disdain, for pure scientific logic. Here we’re back to that old bugaboo, high-context versus low-context cultures and languages. If you don’t know what this means—you should—it is helpful for contextualizing cultural differences between Asia and the West. You can review these ideas by reading The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock followed by A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places. [There are several other articles on this topic that aren’t as on point for this discussion, but are worth a read: Help I’m Living in a High-Context Family and It’s Totally Ontological, Dude! etc.]
In the broadest sense, the structure and layout of low-context languages [English, German, etc.] is logical. Everything in the language strives to convey—as clearly and directly as possible—the logic of each thought or feeling. The entirety of English is focused towards that goal. English language by nature is dry, clinical, and technical; perfect for expressing fine gradations of meaning, and very precisely dicing the logic of any situation. Chinese, as a high-context language, is more about face, hiding true intent, and preserving surface calm, to maintain at least an illusion of congeniality. Chinese is the opposite of English, it’s poetic. It’s great for beautifully expressing the ephemeral, in a fuzzy elegiac way. English lends itself to communicating the technical, logical, and precise; while Chinese lends itself to art and feeling.
It’s all just a cute quirk of cultural linguistics until you find yourself living in a high-context culture, speaking a high-context language, while thinking with your low-context brain. Many Western expats have an unwavering commitment to cold-hearted logic that amounts to little more than self-flagellation when living in Asia. Ahh, the life of an Asian-based expat. 😉
Arguing seems to be the point where most foreigners really drive their heads into the wall. They have their point-of-view which they try to explain with clear simple logic. It’s obviously correct—anyone can see the logic, aaannd the Taiwanese person doesn’t give a flying crap on a stick. Screw your logic—what does that have to do with how I feel? When Taiwanese get into an angry argument, they are usually trying to express their feelings about something. If they’re unfortunate enough to find themselves arguing with a foreigner, then that foreigner is likely—equally angrily—trying to express the logic of the situation, and how that shows that they are CORRECT, GODDAMNIT!!!
It’s like a chicken and a duck talking [雞同鴨講], or perhaps a more useful analogy is that it’s a bit like a man and a woman talking. You, as a foreigner, may clearly and logically explicate on your point, outlining exactly why you did what you did, hold that point-of-view, or whatever, with irrefutable logic, and all you’re going to do is piss off your Taiwanese opponent, because, of course, that has absolutely nothing to do with their feelings. When they are talking angrily, they are usually not talking about who’s logically right or wrong, they are instead expressing perceptions and emotions. How they feel about whether something is right or wrong.
I know. It’s annoying. Get used to it. The number of foreigners I’ve seen with excellent Chinese language ability, absolutely fail to comprehend these cultural/linguistic differences, and act like utter tube steaks while speaking Chinese is stunning. Don’t waste time in an argument you can’t win. It has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with perceptions and feelings. There is nothing for you to win—don’t try. By engaging in an argument, you’re breaking the surface calm that’s treasured in high-context cultures, and thus you’re the ass right from the get-go. The best thing to do is to listen quietly, acknowledge their feelings, and just go to your happy place in your mind, as they express their clearly wrongheaded points-of-view. At the end, nod and say something like that’s interesting, or that you appreciate their perspective, and then move on with your day, otherwise you’ll just annoy yourself and the Taiwanese person to no avail. [I’m 55—these are my prime wisdom-giving years].