One of the questions I am frequently asked by visiting Westerners is how I can live and work among people I cannot communicate with.   The implication being, of course, that language is essential to communication.  (My Chinese is pretty limited, but that’s a blog unto itself.)

In reality I often find that I communicate more effectively here than I do when among fellow native English speakers.  I have to work a little harder, but it is that extra effort that makes the difference.

Words, of course, are not natural to the universe, like oxygen or meteors.  They are a human invention designed to facilitate communication through the use of commonly accepted symbols and sounds.  In English we call them the letters of the alphabet.  In Mandarin they are called, quite appropriately, characters.

You guessed it.  Starbucks.
You guessed it. Starbucks.

Problems arise in lingual communication, however, for the simple reason that symbolism is limited in its effectiveness.   It is, in the end, merely symbolic.  Symbols, by definition, are mere representations of an object, a thought, or an emotion.  They aren’t the real McCoy.

In the end, all language is a translation, no matter how fluently spoken.  Which is precisely why we need poets and authors.  Try as we might it is difficult, nay impossible, to precisely communicate complex human emotions such as love and sorrow.

Mastering an expansive vocabulary can help.  The more symbols you know the better your chances of using the right one to express your thought.  That assumes, however, that the listener’s vocabulary is equally expansive.  Otherwise you might as well be speaking a different language.  Which, essentially, you are.

In the end, the effectiveness of your communication has relatively little to do with the size of your vocabulary.   The effectiveness of your communication, in fact, has more to do with how well you listen than how well you speak.

Americans, in particular, are what linguists call ‘transmitter oriented’ in our communication.  To our way of thinking the speaker has the burden of getting his point across.  “I like people who say what they mean,” is akin to citing the Pledge of Allegiance in asserting your American-ness.  “Give it to me straight.”  “Say that to my face, buddy.”  Or, my mother’s favorite, “If you’ve got nothing good to say, don’t say anything.

Which is why Americans who are trying to communicate with someone who does not speak English are naturally inclined to speak loudly, as if shouting will somehow impose a state of fluency.  But alas, “Nope, even when you say it louder I don’t understand a word you’re saying.  Maybe if you get really frustrated that will help.”

The Chinese, like most Asian cultures, by contrast, are receiver oriented in their communication.  It’s the linguistic version of caveat emptor, or ‘buyer beware’.   From their linguistic perspective the onus is on the listener rather than the speaker to communicate effectively.

The effectiveness of communication often comes down to tone and body language.  It's obvious they're not scheduling a night out.
The effectiveness of communication often comes down to tone and body language. It’s obvious they’re not scheduling a night out.

Which puts an entirely different twist on one of the more infuriating group of Chinese most Westerners will encounter in China – the hawkers, shopkeepers, and promoters who make up the mobilized and relentless army of people who want to sell you something.  They are both tenacious and aggressive and to many Westerners, irritating.

Walk anywhere near the entrance to the Forbidden City and you will be deluged with people trying to sell you their souvenirs or their guide services.  Walk into the modern tourist trap posing as a traditional Chinese market and you will be immediately assaulted by shopkeepers literally pulling you into their shops while promising you, their friend, of course, a very special price.  (More on this in another blog but the shopkeepers in these markets often assign you a color, based on how good a negotiator you are, that gets silently transmitted to all of the other shop keepers before you even set foot in their shop.  It’s a symbiotic practice that allows the group to maximize profits.  Basically let’s them know where they need to set the starting price.)

And whatever you do never venture into a grocery store or hypermarket on a Sunday afternoon.  Even the Western chains that have been lured by the siren of Chinese commerce are no exception.  You will be drowned by a cacophony of unnervingly high-pitched voices distorted into sheer tonal agony by the tinny microphones and sound boxes inevitably employed in even the smallest of spaces.

The woman in the red apron is a promoter and is a wearing a microphone and boom box attached to her waist (out of sight).  She's 'talking' to the woman in the red shirt at a decibel level that can easily be heard across the store.
The woman in the red apron is a promoter and is a wearing a microphone and boom box attached to her waist (out of sight). She’s ‘talking’ to the woman in the red shirt at a decibel level that can easily be heard across the store.

As a slight digression you will be visually overwhelmed as well by the attire that the sponsoring companies who employ the promoters require them to wear.  Some take silly to a new level while others seem genuinely out of place without a dance pole nearby.  (The Chinese are sexually quite modest and conservative, but you might not guess that by the outfits that companies ask their young, attractive promoters and display models to wear.  You can’t buy porn here, but you can go to the auto show or the local mall.)

Milk product promoters at the supermarket.
Milk product promoters at the supermarket.

But back to the topic at hand.

While all of this aggressive yelling and shouting and invasion of personal space initially seems quite rude to the average Westerner, you have to view it through their cultural lens.  Their communication is receiver, rather than transmitted, oriented.  Which simply means that while it is perfectly polite to be aggressive in attempting to sell something to the innocent passerby, it is equally polite for you to ignore them.  Trust me, you won’t hurt their feelings.

But whatever you do, don’t confuse them.  Ignore means ignore.  Pretend they don’t even exist.  Do not look at them or say anything.  The case could be made, in fact, that it is downright rude to say, “No, thank you,” as that will surely cause them to linger and perhaps miss the more lucrative selling opportunity walking behind you.

By becoming more receiver-centric I have actually learned to communicate more effectively in any language.  Because I’ve become a better listener.

And what do I mean by that?  The next time someone is speaking to you ask yourself a simple question.  Are you listening to respond or to understand?  Speaker oriented people are inclined toward the former.  But if that’s the case, there’s really no sense in having the conversation to begin with.  It’s just wasting everyone’s time and sucking the air out of the room for nothing.

If you’re truly listening to learn, on the other hand, you just might get some value out of the conversation.   And if you’re getting value, you just might try a little harder.

The problem is that most of us aren’t very good listeners.  For starters listening simply takes more work than talking.  Windbags are the laziest people on the face of the earth.  Really, how much effort does it really take to just babble on and on about nothing?

Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA researcher, performed several studies in the late 1960’s that ultimately gave rise to what is commonly referred to as the 7/38/55 rule, which holds that words themselves account for only 7% of the effectiveness of communication while tone and body language account for 38% and 55%, respectively.

Sometimes the Chinglish is easy to understand.
Sometimes the Chinglish is easy to understand.

Like most rules, this one is often misrepresented and almost always over-simplified.  Nonetheless, there is an important truth buried therein.  We listen as much with our eyes as we do our ears.  And how something is said, or more to the point, how something is perceived, is as important as the words (i.e. symbols) used.

Context is likewise important and often influences how we interpret both body language and tone.  If you’re sitting in the doctor’s office waiting to hear the result of your lab tests you can be reasonably assured that the doctor isn’t going to come in and start waxing eloquent about the bouquet of the 1982 Lafite Rothschild.

I worked in a factory one summer while in college and had a crusty old supervisor named Newt.  Well, I did something I wasn’t supposed to, and Newt called me into the office and told me to sit in the hard wooden chair in front of his utilitarian grey metal desk.  He then proceeded to walk around the desk, lean over until his nose was almost touching mine, place his hands on the armrests of my chair just in case I might get the crazy idea that I could just walk away, and speak.  Actually, yell would be the more appropriate symbol, since his decibel level was on a par with an angry American in Paris who just couldn’t get his point across.

It didn’t really matter what Newt was saying.  I knew he wasn’t happy.  He was the boss and I had screwed up.  In fact, the words got cut short when his dentures popped out from all the exertion.  But I got his meaning nonetheless.

Mandarin, the official language of China, is the ultimate symbolic language.  The Chinese characters which are the written form of the language are symbolic pictures in the most literal sense.  Knowing Latin is no help.  The only way to learn to read Chinese is through rote memorization.  It’s generally believed, in fact, that you need to recognize roughly 2,000 characters in order to be considered fluent.  That, it goes without saying, takes more than 30 days with the foreign language DVD’s you bought at the airport.

In the case of Mandarin, moreover, you’re dealing with more than a foreign language.  You’ve also got to add a foreign culture into the mix; a culture so different from our own that it can have a profound impact on that most important of communication tools – tone and body language.

Consider, for example, that the bellman of the brand new five star hotel in which you’re staying is leaving your room after dropping off your luggage and showing you, primarily through sign language, where the HVAC controls are located.  You try to hand him a few quay and he raises his hand in the universal gesture of “no, it’s not necessary.”  Despite having just survived a 14 hour plane flight, you actually understand and smile your appreciation instead.

There are levels of fluency in Chinglish.  You might not know right away that this market sells hotel and restaurant supplies.
There are levels of fluency in Chinglish. You might not know right away that this market sells hotel and restaurant supplies.

He leaves you thinking that this communication thing isn’t so hard after all.  You’re going to be all right on this trip.  He, however, tells all his colleagues what a stupid, uncaring weasel you are and while he continues to smile when you pass him in the lobby during the remainder of your stay what you don’t know is that he’s actually visualizing throwing you under a bus.

No Chinese person would ever consider tipping a bellman, of course.  They, however, are forgiven.  They are Chinese.  You, on the other hand, are a foreigner.  You’re supposed to be dumber than that.

Which brings me to my final point on the topic of communicating in China.  Of course knowing the language is a great asset.  The reality is, however, that most Westerners visiting China will not.

And that’s actually okay.  Because it is far more important that you understand the culture than the language and that you can learn in a relatively short period of time.  If you want to be able to communicate in China, first and foremost, learn to be a good listener.  Be sensitive to both body language and tone.  But most of all be aware of context, both physical and cultural.

Sometimes Chinglish can be both amusing and heart-warming.  I was touched to know that this machine had feelings and was concerned for my well-being.
Sometimes Chinglish can be both amusing and heart-warming. I was touched to know that this machine had feelings and was concerned for my well-being.

Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.