Please and Thank You: learning about cultural differences

Posted: January 27, 2012 in Taiwan
Tags: , , , , ,

I just finished reading Deborah Fallows’ Dreaming in Chinese. I am just fascinated with the Chinese culture, and her book addressed some of the issues I had encountered during our time in Taiwan. For instance, some of the Mandarin phrases seem too blunt, but what may seem rude to me is not all considered rude in China (and I assume, Taiwan as well). For instance, ‘Bú yào’ was a phrase we used frequently during our time in Taiwan. It means ‘don’t want’ and is typically used to say you are not interested in something, or to turn down food or other offers. It would seem more appropriate to me to say, ‘no, thank you.’ However, this is an acceptable and standard way to turn down an offer. She goes on to say that she learned the Chinese find Westerners use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ too often and that to them, the overuse of using those phrases may be considered impolite:

“My Chinese friends say…we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please as in “Please pass the salt” actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.” – Excerpt from Dreaming in Chinese

I probably said ‘xiexie’ (thank you) a thousand times while we were in Taiwan. No one seemed offended…and many seemed appreciative we even attempted to speak the language.

Another chapter talks about the evolution to a national language in China and the use of simplified characters instead of traditional characters. She said the changeover to simplified characters in the People’s Republic of China was part of an effort under Chairman Mao Zedong to improve literacy rates. I did not realize that some characters in Mandarin may require up to 20 strokes to write. One of the issues with choosing a national language was the different dialects and accents spoken in China. However, the written language is the same so everyone can read the same characters. This is apparently the reason the Chinese news broadcasts always have the captioning on the screen – even if you cannot understand what the news anchor’s dialect or accent, most people can read the characters. (Taiwan uses the traditional characters, not the simplified characters.)

Fallows and her husband were living in China during the horrific earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan. It was interesting to hear her perspective of the event as she observed changes in the way the Chinese media reported on the rescue efforts in the week following the tragedy:

“There was something unusual about the TV programming and the TV language during early coverage of the earthquake. The programming was ragged and unpolished, and the language was unrehearsed and plainspoken, more like normal street chatter. This was a far cry from the usual carefully scrubbed and scrutinized productions, with their official jargon and heavy words. Everyone agreed, at least at the beginning, that the government was allowing ‘unprecedented transparency’ in media coverage.” – Excerpt from Dreaming in Chinese

This book, while not about Taiwan, was fascinating to read. It definitely helped me understand and appreciate some of the cultural differences.

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