I spend a lot of my time doing cultural training/orientation for newcomers to China, trying to prepare them for the inevitable culture clashes that will come, and help them to understand why some of those clashes occur. I’m really big on the concept of cultural rules and that so much of the adjustment process is getting a handle on what the new cultural rules are. I highlight things like the concept of face, guanxi (relationships), and reciprocity, to name a few. Another concept that I try to emphasize is the tendancy towards indirectness in Chinese communication. So much meaning is implied as opposed to being explicit, so we foreigner spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what is really being communicated. We’re used to more directness in our communication. Of course it’s not a hard and fast rule, but the culture here does generally trend to indirectness as a value.
Actually, over the years I’ve realized that it isn’t quite so simple as saying "Chinese are indirect" and "we are direct." Rather, what I’ve come to discover is this truth: where we are indirect, they tend to be direct; and where we are direct, they tend to be indirect. Forgetting this will stop you in your tracks when you encounter a Chinese person who speaks directly in a situation where you feel some indirectness is warranted. For example, being asked by strangers how much money you make is very common here; direct questions that we would consider inappropriate. But getting someone to respond with a direct no or negative is nearly impossible–something that we would rather hear than lots of beating around the bush.
Well, I was at TGIF tonight for dinner, and got mugged by some direct communication from a waitress that left me completely flustered. No, it wasn’t about my marital status. It was about the tip. (Background—tipping is NOT a Chinese custom. It is only done in western hotels and restaurants). Having satisfied our need for some BBQ ribs, we asked for the bill, and wanting to pick up a few more Worldperks miles, I gave the waitress my credit card. She was a cute young lady with a funky hat and "Cat-in-the Hat" leggings ( I think it was cute hat and leggings night for the wait staff), and she came bounding back to the table with the credit card form for me to sign. She carefully held on to the form as she set it on the table in front of me, whereby the following conversation from the twilight zone ensued:
She: No, write your name here.
Me: Should I write my name or sign my signature?
I signed the form.
She: (pointing to the section marked "tip") What about the tip? How about my service?
This is where all of my cultural and cross-cultural upbringing failed me.
Me: Yes, your service was good. I’ll give you 20 kuai. (about 10%)
I started to write "20" on the form.
She: I think it would be better for you to give me the cash. Do you have cash to give me?
At this point my head was exploding, and my friend was dying of laughter. I had no idea how to properly handle this situation, so I just kept my head down, muttered something, took out a 20 and gave it to her.
So much for indirect communication. Apparently she never got the memo!!!