Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Chinese Maybe

Here's a nice post called "Maybe Today is my Birthday", in which blogger Tom explains a bit about Chinese indirect communication:
Indirect communication in China means that information (usually bad news or self-boasting) is either transmitted via a third party or through half truths. I would say that despite my other experiences, this is the more common style of communication. I have seen this manifest in several ways, and it usually involves the word “maybe.”
In fact, the word “maybe” often pops up in sentences where it has no place. One of my co-workers at one point actually said “Maybe today is my birthday.” Usually though it has a more sinister usage, like: “Maybe you need to come to work on Saturday for a meeting,” or “Maybe you should redo this report,” or “Maybe it would be good for you if that student passed.”
I've experienced many of these Chinese "maybes," ranging from the very common, "Maybe it is a little inconvenient," to my all-time favorite: "My name is Robert.  Maybe I am a boy."

My roommate and I experienced a little indirect miscommunication of our own the other day.  Our Chinese neighbor, whom we rarely see and have never spoken with, knocked on our door.  He indicated a couple bags outside our door, which were things we intended to take down to the dumpster but hadn't yet.
     "Are these yours?"
     "Oh, yes.  Actually they are trash."
He left.  We continued with our habit of leaving our trash outside our door until it was convenient to take it down.

A few days later, he told another Chinese neighbor to tell us to stop putting our trash in the stairwell.  It's gross and it's not a trashcan.  Apparently we were supposed to have gotten this meaning from his original question, "Are these yours?"

The article I mentioned above also discusses the Chinese phenomenon of not telling terminally ill patients there is anything wrong with them.  I believe this was the case with my former student who passed away from a brain tumor a few months ago.  To my knowledge she was not told she had cancer.  Generally the family believes a patient will just be depressed and will have no will to try to survive if they are given bad news about their health.

As a more general recommendation, the blog Seeing Red in China is awesome.  Spend some time digging around and you'll learn a lot about Chinese life.

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