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Expat's Eye
Expat's Eye
UPDATED: October 20, 2014 NO. 43 OCTOBER 23, 2014
Politeness, Chinese Style
By Valerie Sartor


Confucius said, "By nature we converge; by custom, we diverge." Simply put, people from all cultures are endowed with the same hardware; it's our cultural programming that makes us different. Language use captures and shows differences in how we express ourselves via our specific cultural norms. As humans, we all can agree that we share similar needs and desires. Differences arise in the ways we express those elemental wants and needs. Specifically, how people make choices regarding politeness does not always easily translate across cultures.

In China, the concept of face and the avoidance of face threats to self and others have great influence on how people routinely communicate with each other. But what does politeness mean to modern Chinese?

Politeness is a signal of intimacy or lack thereof. A simple matter such as saying "thank you" or "excuse me" can be viewed as distancing, insulting, or insincere among intimates. Close Chinese friends do not thank each other and have repeatedly told me to "stop saying thank you all the time!"

Significantly, the Westerner's definition of face as a kind of public self-image neglects the Chinese cultural point of view. In China, face encompasses more than one's private person. The Chinese take a broader view of self and face, encompassing those in one's social and family networks. Such networks bond them via ongoing, nurtured exchanges entailing reciprocal obligations and mutual considerations. Hence, gift exchanges, requests, refusals, and loans can become very complicated.

In addition, Chinese culture has long held traditions that respectfully acknowledge differences in status. Take for example, the fact that a Chinese inferior should make the first move in greeting exchanges.

Traditional Chinese culture also nurtures specific ways to express politeness. Take for instance, the Confucian sense of social hierarchy, strong family ties, and the ongoing stress on moderation, modesty, and prudence. Contemporary Chinese generally show respect for their elders.

Linguists have identified three Chinese politeness strategies. The first is termed familiar politeness. It strives to develop greater warmth and closeness between interlocutors by expressing special regard toward the person being addressed. This person's virtues, abilities, achievements, even possessions, might be greatly praised.

The second strategy represents a kind of respectful politeness. This communicative act seeks to place respectful distance between the interlocutors. It may define the addressee's need for privacy, autonomy, or freedom from imposition.

The third strategy of politeness linguists have named as off-record politeness. This communication sounds ambiguous to foreigners. It is specifically meant to help the person being addressed to escape responsibility, or to avoid losing face, by letting him or her get off the hook.

Furthermore, to show politeness, a Chinese might address his neighbors, friends, and even strangers as kin. To show deference, he might refer to a commonality in dialect or locality, or recognize a shared status as old schoolmates or former workmates. In other situations, a Chinese might verbally acknowledge his teacher-student relationship. Regarding language usage, a Chinese might use zanmen (inclusive we). To avoid arguments, he or she might respond vaguely or tell white lies. This may confuse English speakers.

Additionally, in greeting people, Chinese politeness strategies are more direct than those in English. They may address health: "Have you recovered yet?" When Chinese say goodbye and wish to express politeness, they may chide their guest: "Be careful, button up, and it's cold outside." This concern is not nagging; instead, it reflects respect for the status of their guest.

It should also be noted that some Chinese politeness strategies involve dropping hints, over-generalizing, understating, and even exaggerating. This can also confuse foreigners. But to express politeness, Chinese tend to be deliberately vague. They like to avoid critical points of view at all costs. They abhor negative responses. Unfortunately, these strategies cause the most trouble between Westerners and Chinese.

I hope I have offered a glimpse, my dear reader, of how language is so intimately connected with culture. Although I have studied Chinese, sometimes assiduously, sometimes without much gravity, I still doubt that I will ever be able to master and understand Chinese politeness strategies. All I can do is count upon the goodwill of my Chinese friends, who generously help me translate my good intentions toward them, and who humorously accept my grammatical follies.

The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region

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