Tag Archives: high-context culture

Don’t Use Logic to Argue in Chinese: High-context Arguments

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].

Humor’s Intercultural Perils: Why’s Everyone Pissed Off?

Do Chinese speakers have a sense of humor? On its face it seems a ridiculous question. However, many Westerners living in Taiwan have reached the conclusion that humor and Chinese culture are antithetical. As crazy as it sounds, it has a logic.

I once was one of those foreigners—I’ve since reformed. I would tell people that if you were being politically correct you’d say that humor is culturally defined and each culture has its own distinct sense of whimsy. However, if you were being truthful, you’d admit Chinese speakers have no sense of humor. I’d further explain most Chinese speakers, upon hearing a comedic aside, analyze it from every angle seeking a way to be offended. Further clarifying that a typical Chinese inner monologue after a joke might run: Have I been insulted; has my culture or race been slandered; and, how morally indignant am I, on a scale from outraged to apoplectic? If I wasn’t belittled, who was? Do I care? How much? If not directly about me, am I somehow peripherally being mocked? Let’s dig through five thousand years of human history trying to find some way to take umbrage. If not insulting, then is the joke somehow socially inappropriate?… After all this mental arithmetic, nothing is ever funny. That’s why sarcasm doesn’t exist in Chinese. That’s why Chinese speakers rely on the most unsophisticated types of humor; puns and puerile jokes, the domain of young children in the West.

I was wrong.

Well, sort of, like everything about culture, there are shades of grey. The mental gymnastics described above though overstated are kind of true. Thus, American humor can be very tough for Chinese listeners. A lot of American humor is outwardly directed, sometimes aggressive, and based on sarcasm and insult. Chinese speakers do better with American wit when that aggression is turned inwards to become self-deprecation. Then it’s clear to us Chinese speakers who is being insulted, and we’re okay with it.

Here’s where I was really wrong. Sarcasm exists in Chinese. It is very common for a group of friends engaged in badinage to be stunningly insulting and sarcastic, in a humorous way. The difference isn’t so much a matter of humor as variation between high-context and low-context communication styles (See: A Low-Context Dude and Unified Field Theory for background on the cultural linguistics). Americans are noted for their ability to move from strangers to ass-slapping and calling each other Butthead in the course of an evening. It’s friendly. It is also a very low-context cultural style. Other Western cultures, though perhaps more reserved, are also relatively low-context.

Chinese culture, and Asian cultures in general, tend to be more high-context. There is an emphasis on forming and deepening relationships within your group. As a consequence of this cultural style, humor is geared towards the in-group. If you’re not part of the group, you won’t understand the in-jokes, and likely will never hear them. Shared humor builds group cohesion and helps distinguish the in-group from outsiders. It’s coded messaging for the initiated. On the macro level, Taiwanese humor is a good example, much of it is based on the interplay of Chinese and Taiwanese, kind of creating puns across linguistic lines.  Only proficient Taiwanese speakers can really hope to understand, even in Taiwan that’s only a bit more than half the population. Non-Taiwanese have no hope.

Ultimately the tendency to confine joking to peers explains  why many foreigners living among Chinese speakers think they lack humor and don’t understand sarcasm. As outsiders, they are not invited to share in the jokes. Taiwanese people are capable of great sarcasm, and cut on their friends hard, but that’s just it, the humor is for close friends.

Humor and sarcasm coming from outside the in-group can seem aggressive to Chinese speakers. That is not how humor flows in Taiwan, rapier-like wit should only cut a group member—for social cohesion there’s an emphasis on maintaining surface calm among the wider society. For foreigners from a low-context culture, that doesn’t emphasize maintaining a respectful separation between social groups based on status and hierarchy, it is easy to inadvertently cause discomfiture with your banter. It is part of how we try to break down barriers and be more friendly and interesting. High-context cultures like their barriers just as they are—thank you very much.

Form Over Function

When I first came to Taiwan to study Chinese folk religion, I was surprised to learn that form was valued over function. In a religious context, that meant that if the form of an individual’s prayer was correct, it didn’t matter what was in their heart or their beliefs. If the devotee went from incense censer to censer in the prescribed order and made the obeisances correctly, that was good enough. As I’ve lived here longer I’ve found that form is highly valued in most areas of life.

Form’s importance partially relates to the nature of high-context culture, with its emphasis on community and maintaining a shared perspective, based on shared history and culture (The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock). People are discouraged from scratching too deeply below the surface—there be dragons. If social cohesion’s underpinnings are examined too closely the house of cards will fall. The surface calm and solidarity required by high-context societies necessitates a willful denial of deeper social realities. The form, or surface, needs to be prioritized over the heterogeneity below the surface.

A system of politeness that emphasizes form developed in the Chinese cultural milieu to maintain surface calm. I’d like to turn to Chinese literature for a historical example. The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) is one of the four great classic novels of China (四大名著). Written in the 14th century by Shi Nai’an, it has been described as China’s tale of Robin Hood. It is an adventure story about bandits. What surprises is how much of the narrator’s time is spent describing the formal modes of address and politeness employed when for example two bandit leaders meet, or a court official and General meet, etc. Much of the story is conveyed in the subtle shifts in forms of politeness. It was surprising to read an adventure novel where several pages might be spent on the minutia of showing respect:

After the usual courtesies as to names, Lu Da said that he had met Lin Cheng’s father at the Eastern Capital. Lin Chong was much pleased, and insisted upon making LuDa his sworn elder brother…. Lu Da ordered his servants to bring wine for the guest and when the later had partaken three cups,…  (Shi Nai’an, The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh. Translated by J. H. Jackson. Tuttle Publishing: Hong Kong, p. 64).


Chao Gai pressed Lin Chong three times to take the seat of honor, but Lin Chong declined the honor. At last Chao Gai gave way and agreed to take the premier seat, and Lin Chong took the second seat. The other six men took their seats in a row. (Ibid. p. 214).

While the actual adventure parts of the story—the chases and battles—can be shockingly brief, occasionally little more than a couple paragraphs. Form is important: Sometimes it is almost the whole story.

I’m not trying to suggest that modern Asia is nearly as formalistic as it was in the Yuan Dynasty, but there certainly are echoes of that history today. Let’s start with a stupid foreigner story. During my first couple weeks living in Taiwan I rode the bus frequently. One day, from my seat, I saw an old Taiwanese man hobble onto the relatively full bus. He was the picture of geriatric distress; a cane, bowed back, small shuffling steps, sagging skin and a constant grimace as he meandered along. Naturally, I got up and offered him my seat, to which he very politely declined, and indicated with his hands that I should return to my seat. I was slightly confused—the guy obviously needed a seat—but, I honored his wishes. I didn’t want to insult him by implying that he was too decrepit to stand. After I sat back down, he gave me a look that I couldn’t decipher. Shortly afterwards a gently smirking Taiwanese businessman offered the old codger his seat, which he gratefully accepted. The old man then spent the rest of the bus ride glaring daggers at me. Most perplexing.

Later that day I found out from Taiwanese friends that I am supposed to offer something three times, so the recipient can reject the offer twice, before finally allowing himself to be cajoled into acceptance on the third time. Who knew? Where I come from, if somebody offers you something, politely reject it if you don’t want it, or take it if you do, because the offer isn’t coming again—function over form.

There are endless examples of the importance of form in Asian social interactions. Korean drinking culture is a great illustration of the importance of form in social interactions. Drinking in Korea is not just about getting drunk, although that is the desired byproduct, it is about showing respect. There are a lot of ritualized rules surrounding how to get drunk with friends. The briefest of lists includes: pour and receive drinks with both hands; don’t pour your own drink; pour drinks for others; definitely for the first drink, and as much as possible for subsequent drinks, try to drink at the same time as others (don’t drink alone); turn to the side when drinking in front of a social superior; etc. As a foreigner, it can be rather odd to watch a group of Korean friends descend into a drunken debauch, all the while, very precisely, observing the correct forms and rituals required to maintain politeness and the social hierarchy. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just distinctly different.

Generally, the form-over-function nature of Asian societies is harmless. Indeed it is part of the culture’s charm. However, it can go too far. One extreme example comes from Chiayi (嘉義), Taiwan. This event happened not too long after I arrived in Taiwan. Four people were working in Pachang Creek (八掌溪) when the water began to rise. The four workers became trapped on a small piece of land in the center of the flooded river. Rescuers arrived in plenty of time to carry out a rescue. However, for three hours no rescue helicopter came. Eventually the four were swept to their deaths, literally in front of the TV cameras, family, and emergency services workers standing helplessly on the riverbank.

The problem? Well, it was a matter of form. There was confusion over whether police air rescue or air force search and rescue should handle it. In my mind, I imagine the gathered rescuers calling for a search and rescue helicopter, and the commander on the other end answering, “Oh, I’m so honored to be considered first for this great undertaking, yet I must demure to my honorable colleague from police air rescue.” And, when they called in police air rescue, the commanding officer there responding, “Oh, the air force commander is too kind, we police are but amateurs compared with the air force’s pilots. I must insist that they take on this grand endeavour.”  And, on and on, until everyone died, in a shockingly literal example of the Midwestern American idiomatic expression; a Chinese fire drill. I’m sure that is not exactly what happened; but, I’m likewise sure it is sort of what happened.

Form is important. For people from lower-context cultures, the importance of social form is perplexing, but it is the glue that maintains the surface homogeneity necessary for a high-context culture to function. It is intrinsic to the culture and not likely to change.

The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock

Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture posits a theory that all cultures can be placed on a continuum between high-context and low-context. The position of the culture on this spectrum explains almost all cultural differences between two countries, regions, corporations, etc. The high-/low-context framework is exceptionally useful for contextualizing culture shock and giving the expat a way of understanding the wackiness that dominates his/her life. Taiwan is a high-context culture; most English speakers come from a low-context cultures, and therein lies the problem.

A higher context culture has an indirect and implicit style of interaction. High-context communication emphasizes context as the preferred method of imparting meaning. Words are not used to explicitly state meaning, rather meaning is conveyed indirectly and nonverbally. The meaning of a statement is to be found in between the actual words. In a high-context culture there is an emphasis on establishing long term relationships. That’s logical as clear communication in a high-context culture requires familiarity. As you can imagine talking with a stranger who is artfully trying to avoid saying what he really means is a recipe for miscommunication. High-context cultures de-emphasize writing as there is less room for subtle non-word communication. By contrast low-context cultures seek clarity in all aspects of communication. There is a strong emphasis on explicitly stating meaning. They speak directly, avoid nonverbal communication, and rely on written communication. Can you see the potential for cross-cultural miscommunication and culture shock?

High-context cultures tend to be exclusionary. They emphasize community over the individual. Long-term relationships are important and there is a strong differentiation between group members and outsiders. The emphasis on being part of a group means that people in the group have enough shared values, experiences, and other commonalities to be able to communicate without the necessity of explicitly stating everything. These cultures rely on their common background to explain situations. Asian countries with their relatively high level of racial homogeneity tend to be high-context. Whereas more racially diverse (European) cultures tend to be low-context. The higher cultural/racial diversity requires individuals from widely varied backgrounds to use words to clearly state meaning, as there isn’t the group cohesion necessary for high-context communication.

The languages themselves have developed to reflect these different communication styles. High-context languages tend to be more ambiguous. While low-context languages have developed to state meaning clearly and explicitly with enough precision to convey fine gradations in meaning. These differences are clearly manifested in high- and low-context languages’ vocabulary and writing structure. For more information on high-/low-context languages and cultural linguistics see “A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places”.

There is a strong correlation between collectivism and high-context cultures. High-context cultures emphasize building strong interpersonal connections and maintaining long term relationships. They seek to maintain strong kinship, patronage, and other social group ties. Distrust of outsiders is built into the culture, language, and communication style. [So, if you’re an expat in Asia, it sucks to be you]. There is a parallel emphasis on getting group members to conform to the larger group’s expectations. Low-context cultures are more individualistic. Interpersonal bonds are less stable. Group cohesion is less robust, which allows people to move in and out of a group more easily than in a high-context culture. Low-context cultures tend to be open and accepting of outsiders.

High-context cultures tend to be traditional. Communication requires society members to absorb shared cultural contexts and cues. Cultural stability is needed for the subtextual basis of high-context communication to be assimilated by all community members. High-context cultures tend to fight change and are slow to adapt. Low-context cultures have a lower emphasis on using shared history to provide shared communication references and thus are free to make quicker social changes. The downside is that large intergenerational communication gaps can develop, sometimes making cross-generational communication difficult.

One aspect of high- and low-context cultural differences that gets attention among multinational corporations is the difference between polychronic and monochronic work methods. High-context cultures tend to be polychronic, which values human interaction above time considerations and material objects. A polychronic work culture encourages multitasking, does not worry excessively about time management, and spurns strict organization in favor of a collegial—if chaotic—work environment. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, where people do one task at a time, they do it well, and then they move on. Time is considered to be very valuable. The monochronic approach to work is to carefully plan and schedule everything. Time management is of paramount importance. Getting it done is good; but getting it done on schedule is what matters. High-context cultures tend to feel that the process is more important than the product. In low-context cultures the end-result—in the case of work, the product—is what’s important. If you made a good product then the degree to which its production facilitated warm interpersonal feelings amongst staff is inconsequential. That’s not true for high-context cultures.

The high-/low-context framework provides a broad structure for perceiving and generalizing cultural differences. It aids in understanding the underlying social factors that sometimes lead to cross-cultural interactions going awry. It is generally used to place nations within a worldwide cultural context. It is inherently an instrument of overgeneralization, though a certain nation might generally be considered high-context certain groups, regions, corporations, ethnicities, etc. within that country may be lower-context. Still, I find high-/low-context theory useful for helping me understand my interactions with Taiwanese society.

I wanted to introduce the high-/low-context framework for use in future articles on cross-cultural interaction. It is a useful model to illuminate aspects of expat life in Asia. As you can imagine this article barely scratches the topic’s surface. If you’re interested in more information try reading Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Anchor Books, 1976. ISBN 978-0385124744 and Samovar, Larry A. and Richard E. Porter. Communication Between Cultures. 5th Ed. Thompson and Wadsworth, 2004. ISBN 0-534-56929-3.