It is commonly believed among many Chinese that Westerners who take "yes" and "no" by their face meanings are more straightforward than Chinese.
The perception contains some value. Normally Westerners don`t have to adopt Chinese tactics like sweeping the floor or constantly checking the clock to indicate to a guest that it`s time to leave. They don`t have to hesitate in saying "no" when they are not able to, or don`t want to, offer help to a friend in need. There is no embarrassment attached to this behavior.
But it is too simple to conclude that Westerners are more direct speakers than the Chinese.
There are many occasions when the way Westerners express themselves make Chinese look more straightforward and honest.
When I was a fresh international student, the director of our program once asked students in an e-mail what we thought about a new adjunct professor. I simply said "She seems to know a lot but doesn`t know how to teach." And the director replied with "Thank you for being candid."
Only years later when I better understood the new culture, I realized why I had gone too far. If that question were asked now, the reply would have three paragraphs devoted to the qualities of the professor before the last line came out - "There are some gaps in her teaching methodology." Still tough, but at least it wouldn`t be considered rude.?
Indeed, the introverted social norms and the deeply-rooted "face issue" make honest speaking risky in China, Americans have their own reasons to distort words. This results partly from suffocating political correctness. It also results from several generations of people who have been told they have done well even when they have failed. It may not be unfair to suggest that many Americans are oversensitive and obsessed with a perfect self image.
So, the next time you hear about the inscrutable and indirect Chinese, it would be worth challenging the source and pointing out that the cultural comparisons are much more complex.?But maybe you should do it in a roundabout way, to be polite?
Adjunct professor 兼职教授，非全职教授
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