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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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What do the F-bomb and Shaving have in Common?

By Peter V
468 Views | 10 Comments | 8/19/2017 3:00:05 PM

Nothing—not sex, not politics, not money issues—is more important to a relationship/marriage than communication. You might read somewhere that money issues are the single biggest reason for divorce, but dig down and you will find that it was not the money that caused the breakup but the inability to communicate about finances—and often anything else for that matter.

 

If good communication is a challenge in any relationship, cross-cultural dating and relationships confront  a special obstacle in this area, since the intercultural couple often operate from diametrically opposed communication strategies. These two communication styles can cause even more difficulty for a relationship than the two languages. If a couple speaks two different primary languages, the issue is out in the open, obvious, and accounted for; the couple can deal with it (or not) as they wish. But when it comes to communication styles, many couples do not even realize there is an issue. But as anyone who watches a horror movie discovers, what you don’t know can hurt you. Entering into a intercultural relationship without an understanding of these two communication styles and how they function can be as dangerous as entering the backcountry without a map.

 

The two communication styles universally recognized by cultural anthropologists are known as direct and indirect communication. The difference involves the amount of context, that is, innate and mostly unconscious understanding, one carries into a communication situation. Indirect communication relies less on words and more on nonverbal methods to convey meaning, while direct communication demands that the information required to provide meaning be clearly stated.

 

To give a simple example, imagine a dining situation among friends where it is someone’s turn to treat. In a high context culture, no mention would be made this fact before, during or after the meal. By contrast, someone in a low context culture might want to verify this fact by saying, “it’s my treat” beforehand while the person being treated will probably utter a “thanks for lunch” at the end of the meal.

 

One reason to avoid the direct statement in a low context culture is that it is often thought it is inelegant, rude or simply offensive to speak on certain things directly (in this case, because it is reminding the diner that he is being treated).

 

Chinese culture and most Asian cultures are what is known as high context cultures while generally speaking the West is a low context culture. I remember my introduction into the world of indirect communication. It came when I was a Peace Corps volunteer living with an older Chinese couple for two months during orientation in a complex where a number of other Peace Corps volunteers were situated as well.  Over breakfast one morning, the woman asked, out of the blue and for no apparent reason: “what is the time difference between America and China?” I explained to her about time zones (which don’t exist in China) and that this meant the difference could be anywhere from 12 to 15 hours, to which she replied, “Oh, I knew it must be a lot, because one of the volunteers was outside my window at 2 a.m. and talked for an hour. So I guessed it must be a very different time in America.” The light bulb went off; all of those Peace Corps lectures about culture and the difference between direct and indirect communication suddenly made sense. Here was indirect communication staring me in the face over my morning cornflakes. It was clear that this woman wanted me to convey to the volunteer that she had been kept up the night before by her conversation. But it would have been rude to make that request outright.

 

Over that summer, I was given a master course indirect communication at close contact, a study I continued to carry out over the course of my time in China. But it is a lesson I have had to learn again and again over the course of my relationship with Yong.

 

Case in point: Not exactly early in our relationship but before we were married, while we were driving, I recall, Yong asked, “Do Americans swear a lot?”

 

I opined on a book I had just read about the F bomb, the sometimes-blunt nature of American discourse, and the levels of society in which such language may or may not be acceptable. Her reply made clear she was interested in none of that. “Oh,” she replied. “I guessed it must be the case since you use that word a lot.” I have been on my good behavior since.

 

Another early instance. One morning after a particularly passionate session, Yong mentioned that my beard grew back very, very fast. Yes, it’s probably genetic, I said, the Italian ancestry. It took me a couple of more times to determine she was not interested in my ancestry but wanted to let me know that my morning beard was not very comfortable for her face.

 

There is a line in a John Prine song that goes, “A question ain’t really a question/if you know the answer too.” With indirect discourse, a question is often not a question but a declarative statement screaming at you in the face, and a statement may mean something very different from its obvious content.

 

To expect a partner raised in a culture of indirect communication to come right out and say what she means is as unrealistic as expecting a watermelon dropped from a rooftop to suddenly float upward.  While the Western partner may well be able to get away without learning Chinese, you will not be able to survive in a relationship without learning a second language, that of indirect communication. At least it doesn’t have tones.

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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#2017-08-19 14:52:29 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

You're onto something fascinating here Peter, and it's something I have thought about a lot, but studied not at all, unless you count my personal, subjective experiences as "study".  In my current marriage to my Chinese wife I encounter endless situations in which our cultural differences dramatically effect our communications, and we both have to keep our tuners on high alert to ensure that we don't ignore how those cultural differences can impact our understanding of what the other person said.

Your explanation of the differences between a culture of direct communication vs a culture of indirect communication is an excellent one, and is crucial for partners in Western/Asian relationships, including the subset group in Western/Chinese relationships, to understand and keep constantly in mind if they wish to avoid endless misunderstandings arisng between them.

If a Western man does not take this cultural challenge to communication with his Asian or Chinese partner or wife seriously, and keep it always in his mind as a light to be shone on her words when trying to understand her, he will spend an entire conversation that may go on for the length of their repationship together, and never realize that during all that time that she was talking about apples, he was meant to understand the discussion was about oranges.

He might well embark on a relationship that seems created in Heaven, to watch it slowly decay into one that is clearly from Hell, and never realize that the reason for the breakdown had nothng to do with whether or not she was a good or bad person, but had everything to do with his wanton disregard of, and failure to even consider, the differences in how people of her culture communicate. If that man can't, or won't, or simply doesn't bother to understand what you have written about here, then the breakdown of that man's relationship is nothing more or less thna a self inflicted wound.

I hope our members are reading this blog. I wish I had read it when I first started down this road of partnering with a Chinese woman. It would have spared me a lot of grief in getting to where I am today in my relationship, instead fo my learning it the hard way through years of personal "study".

Well done!

#2017-08-19 18:43:28 by sandy339 @sandy339

Maybe I am different?(mm) my dear is always shocked by my direct words, for example, one day when I talked about my puppy and complained how she shit everywhere.He said he was amazed by how common to me to say the word like SHIT like any other ordinary words, and in his world, people don't say it in pubic or so directly? LOL.

#2017-08-23 09:00:45 by fj1383 @fj1383

You guys should BE AWARE of some Chinese women. This article is certainly eye opening for those of you who didn't have the chance to live in China and maybe right now are considering the idea of moving over to be with your new found love. From my 8 years living here I would dare say that a good percentage of Chinese women tend to choose the "indirect" way to communicate with their partners. Some even reach unbelievable levels of indirectness, expecting you to be a psychic who can guess their every single feeling or desire and throwing a tantrum if you fail to do so.

#2017-08-23 15:08:37 by anonymous16503 @anonymous16503

I do agree that we Chinese use indirect commumication often. I think indirect communication cause less embarrassment and impolitness.In this way, we not only listen but also watch the person who talking with us. 

For example, if you find your wife's face turn red after you kissing her, then you would know she is not talking about your Italian ancestry :D 

I think that's why we think Chinese men are more considerate then western men in some way.

For crossculture relationship, I agree direct commnication helps more.

Great article! (y)(y)

#2017-08-24 03:39:38 by anonymous16504 @anonymous16504

@fj1383 truer words have not been spoken! Temper tantrums like a 10 y old in a candy store being told no you cant have any candy! Sleep with one eye open...lol

#2017-08-31 00:04:29 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@fj1383: I would say that while it seems your Chinese partner may be expecting you to be a "psychic who can guess their every single feeling or desire," the fact is that she is simply expecting you to have the same perception as a member of her own culture. While this is an unrealistic expectation, it is also unrealistic to expect that you can continue in a cross cultural relationship without learning something of the indirect method of communication (See @JohnAbbot above). Unlike reading minds, reading cultural communication signals is something that one can acquire with time and practice. I would say that the Chinese partner needs to be patient and the Western partner needs to put forth the effort.

#2017-09-01 02:13:48 by anonymous16508 @anonymous16508

I would say both Chinese and Western partners need to show patience, effort and respect. Western guys can expect to deal with what we perceive as immature, angry behaviour from our Chinese women, they need to expect western men to be confused by the directness of their thoughts, words and actions.

I find it interesting that most western women think western men have simple minds and thoughts, that we are controlled by 2 thoughts...eating and our "johnsons", which is so far from the truth it is actually degrading in many ways.

We western guys perceive Chinese women as being complicated and materialistic, when in fact they have complicated minds but their directness with no filter makes them seem one minded and simple. Once both parties figure this out the communication becomes much much easier. Just do not "cross" your Chinese woman as she is likely to dump your ass or make your life miserable for months to come. Remember "face" is much more important to them and their culture, do your best to never make her or her family lose face...We may think it is stupid or ridiculous but it is their way and you have to respect this.

My Chinese woman once told me that Western men's and Chinese women's minds and thoughts are more similar than we think...pause for thought eh?

#2017-09-02 00:40:11 by kalzorch @kalzorch

The indirect approach is also a feminine trait.

#2017-09-02 16:43:36 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

Chinese women's perception of 'bad language' is different to ours too. For instance, if you said to me 'I'm never late for an appointment' - and I know you ARE - I might say 'F*ck off, you're ALWAYS late!''

The tone I would use is far different to a more serious tone if I used the same 'F*ck off!' when I wanted you to piss off and leave me alone.

Chinese is a tonal language, and there are many words that may be the same, yet are spoken with a different tone in order to give the LITERAL meaning.

In English, we use tones with FEELING (I guess), as in the example above.

However, to the Chinese, a 'bad word' is a 'bad word' no matter the context. I always use the Chinese saying 'gou pi' - much to the laughing and giggling of my students, yet when I look it up in the Chinese - English dictionary, it says 'nonsense'. I'm told that it's used more like we use the word 'bullshit' (I guess bullshit/nonsense are pretty much the same in some contexts), but they consider it to be 'bad language'.

Do I care? - F*ck ' em, lol

#2017-09-05 13:35:07 by fj1383 @fj1383


@woaizhongguo (giggle)  I wasn't referring to my Chinese partner at all, fortunately she's exceptional and one of kind in so many ways. I was just trying to warn folks here about 'some' chinese women who insist on being indirect even on important issues a couple would eventually face. I wasn't trying to generalize either, there are many truly beautiful girls in this great country but after dating plenty of them from different provinces I came to realize that some of them are too indirect for any man's taste. It seems great part of this indirectness is fruit of the high expectations they have of their new partners, specially when they love comparing their lives to their girlfriends' lives....maybe another Chinese trait.


@anonymous16504 Thanks!


@kalzorch feminine trait or not, here Chinese ladies take it to a new level sometimes. (rofl)

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