Friday, August 22, 2014

Part M - Teaching in China - Communication problems. Being malicious or merely an unfortunate misunderstanding?

Misunderstandings can happen between people who know each other well, in loving long term relationships and between friends who respect each other deeply. It's easy to inadvertently upset someone with a careless word uttered at the wrong moment or when someone is feeling tetchy and out of sorts. 

We all have sensitive buttons, which when pushed, can occasionally result in an out of control reaction, a cruel explosive retort, or smouldering resentment.

It's far too easy for misunderstandings to take on a life of their own and expand with a putrid, nasty, writhing intensity. They have the potential to erode relationships beyond repair, and unless efforts are made to clarify, and for apologies to be made and accepted openly and honestly, without strings or malice, the hurt or bitterness can last a lifetime.

If it's this easy for divisive misunderstanding to occur between friends from a similar background and speaking the same language, imagine how easy it is for misunderstandings to happen between people who were born in different countries, speak different languages, but also have different world views and expectations about communicating. Aspects of communication also include things such as dress code, how far to stand apart when conversing, whether it's normal to defer to the older person, their relative status, whether to make eye contact or not and whether touching is acceptable or not. It's complex!

I overheard an exchange where a teacher from the United States was deeply offended and insulted, by a word used between our Chinese organisers who were speaking Chinese between themselves. What on earth could have happened?

It turns out that the Chinese word “nei ge” which translates at “that one”, can sound like the taboo word nigger to someone from the US who understands and has lived with the culturally laden impact of the "N word" which I'm assured wouldn't be uttered by a white person. People from other English speaking countries, may, however, be completely oblivious to the sound of the word, and not even notice it in a Chinese conversation because it's not part of their culture and history. The strength of the taboo of saying the word is huge in the United States, but ... 

Remember you’re in China. Different world, different challenging history, different problems, different assumptions and expectations, and different taboos. 

Most Chinese people you meet and interact with will naturally speak Chinese to each other. They won’t have any idea that their conversation where they're referring to a book, a bus or a pair of cute shoes as “that one” could possibly offend anyone, and they’d be perplexed at any angry reaction to their conversation.  If for some reason they did happen to be speaking about people they're hosting, they won’t knowingly choose an offensive word! They have their own problems, and insulting or offending one of their visiting teachers definitely won't be on their list of things to do. 

If you hear something hurtful whether you're at home or abroad, step back and think calmly; ask for clarification. (Which is what happened in the instance above.) Don't let a private conversation and a foreign word sweep you into a reaction which could get embarrassingly awkward if you make a scene.

A misunderstanding is easy, and if it happens, finding a time to discuss the cause could also lead to a rich conversation about history, oppression, taboos and similarities and differences between peoples. 


Remember too that our words, expressions, body language and habits can also cause offence. I mispronounced my host’s name and referred to him as a glob of snot. To his face. More than once. Thankfully he was gracious enough to laugh it off and accept my pathetic and inadequate pronunciation and patiently try to teach me to say his name correctly - again, and again, and again.
A hug is good at any time, but especially if things go wrong!

I'm sure most people have a story about communication and misunderstandings which have either led to problems or to more open discussion and deeper understanding. You're welcome to share ...

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My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food, GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toilets) and Lists! Next up - Non-verbal communication
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