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The Inscrutable Chinese

Popularity 6Viewed 63411 times 2015-11-12 07:16 |Personal category:Quote Me|System category:Life| inscrutable, Chinese, expression

The Inscrutable Chinese

Note: This article is based on some stereotypes of Western and Eastern people that are generalisations. I believe individuals should be judged for what they are. But these generalisations however have some statistical validity and are very useful for learning.

I guess most Westerners who are exposed to debating, dealing or negotiating with Chinese or Asians have heard this expression 'Inscrutable Chinese Face'. I have rarely seen this used with reference to Italians or Mexicans or Arabs or Indians. This expression is often used as a sort of complaint. It seems to arise from disappointment due to an inability to read the true feelings of someone of Chinese or Asian origin in a situation. It is where the Westerner feels they would normally have been able to judge the true feelings, if the person they were trying to read were of a different, perhaps more expressive ethnicity or someone of their own. It is usually a negative connotation to encountering an 'inscrutable' face for the Westerner. It is as if the Oriental person failed to provide something that was due or rightfully expected of them.

This is an interesting issue since it reflects and reveals a deep truth about the way Western and Eastern people 'read' others. Westerners are very visually tuned to the expressions, tones and other 'cues'. They seek 'eye-contact', standard phrases and expressions to both reveal and to reveal concealment of true feelings. Their further steps in a debate or dealing are dictated by the reaction or response they get. They are usually adept at changing their next moves based on the reaction they get from the other person. In negotiations or deals, there is a strong motive to judge and see 'how much one can get away with' without saying so explicitly. It is expected that the other party does the same  and it is a game played according to the 'fair game' rules - where the outcome need not be fair as long as each got a 'fair' chance to play by the same rules.

Now, this kind of thing falls apart when dealing with someone that one is not the same as us, not familiar to us, a race or ethnicity that one has not encountered before. One had difficulty reading someone's face, expressions and feelings. It is like we are little infants once again, just come into this world and are trying to figure out what others mean and what they are feeling or thinking. An infant knows just the basic expressions it can trust or distrust - a smile or a frown, a loving tone or a harsh one. As adults we are conditioned to distrust these as well in serious debate or 'negotiations'. The Western adult now feels like a helpless child just starting to work out the world. 

The Eastern mindset and negotiation styles are different culturally. One did not make eye contact since those are often dictated by social power. One often used tones and subtle expressions to convey deference or confidence or to deliberately conceal those, much the same as Western culture does, where needed. The guiding principle was to try and put forth one's reasoning, particularly if it was strong and could logically stand on its own, taking out the personalities and other 'distractions', even while giving all the signals of social deference to authority or power through body language and other gestures. Even the socially weak can put forward a strong case through reason and hope to get it across. The idea is not to try and get away with something, but let reason, fairness or equitableness win, as a first attempt. However, if that failed, then the 'other game' begins, much the same as in Western dealings, but, as much as possible, the personal feelings and issues are kept aside. This is because, everyone is aware that people can put on a show of expressions, feelings and drama and get away with things. Without the personal drama, it is possible to arrive at a more 'principle based' , fair or equitable outcome.

If the first attempt at reasoning fails, the power equation is put forward as the next step to try and convince the other to themselves come round to our point of view so that it can appear that we all came to an agreement on our own. When that too fails, it is usually a face saving, gracious tactic of walking away to come back later, still without still involving people personally, emotionally. Both parties may go back to their own camps. Note that both Western and Eastern people can be quite expressive and very much scrutable when among their own ethnicity or fellow cultural compatriots.

In negotiations or personal dealings, Easterners tend to ignore or put aside personal expressions or tones. They do better with written down principles, offers or dealings that do not require personal showmanship or acting. However, they have had to learn and use some of these since they have been dealing with others around the world. It is just that they are not as good at it as Westerners.

Now, coming to the 'inscrutability' of the Chinese or Asians, there is something many Westerners fail to realise. They often say 'I am not even sure if he/she understood what I was saying or what I meant." It is very frustrating for them since the Asian person, who perhaps until a few moments ago was 'readable' suddenly has assumed a quiet, expressionless expression that reveals no feelings one way or the other. They probably say "I will get back to you afterwards."

Here is a thought to Westerners. The Chinese or Asian can usually understand the terms of an offer or deal logically just as well as a Westerner. They are just as human, just as intelligent and will have the same feelings about it being fair or unfair or whatever. Very likely, they understood your position quite well. They probably feel they do not owe it to you to provide you with signals of acknowledgment that you will understand from your cultural conditioning. It is just that they try to save their and the Westerner's face by not reacting openly to it, right then and there, because it seems like unpleasant drama. 

My suggestion to anyone coming across an 'inscrutable face' is as follows.

First, scrutinize yourself, your own position, offer or attitude towards making fair deal, debate rather than try to pry open the other's expressions to try and read or an unfair advantage. Be assured, even if you offered them a great deal, they may take a while to figure it out. Once they do, the next time they meet you, you will see them not being so inscrutable, but clearly showing their feelings. They will usually try to outdo you and return the favour. 

Btw, I find Westerners can be inscrutable too. It took me a long time of living in the Western culture to pick up on their being consciously inscrutable.

What do you think?

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report snowipine 2015-11-12 12:58
the subtle differences between the two subjects are guiding the interested people from both sides endeavoring to fill the gap by contributing general acceptable conceptions and proposals under the preconditon of mutual consideration, and for the common benefits.

Many things are hard to depict by words, given the weakness of the language in itself in presenting the facts and truth, in other end, many things could be understanded only by actions other than rhetorics, even sometimes it is could be.
Reply Report KIyer 2015-11-12 13:23
snowipine: the subtle differences between the two subjects are guiding the interested people from both sides endeavoring to fill the gap by contributing general  ...
That is true. As they say, actions speak louder than words. We can all judge actions much better than words or facial expressions.
Reply Report Dracarys 2015-11-12 15:54
if everyone were familiar to us all.. then it's boring ..that's what this colorful world really means ..
Reply Report KIyer 2015-11-12 16:00
Dracarys: if everyone were familiar to us all.. then it's boring ..that's what this colorful world really means ..
True! That is a great spirit and attitude to have towards inscrutable people in our lives.
Reply Report Newtown 2015-11-13 01:49
This article has two main flaws. The first is that it admits that racial stereotypes are generalisations which only have "some statistical validity". The author then procedes to provide no statistics to validate his claims. In fact it would be very difficult for him to do so since he is seeking to provide subjective opinions which could not be readily discerned from statistical data, chi square tests, t tests or any other form of mathematical proof because he is relying on a subject of one - himself.

The second major flaw is the assumption maintained throughout this article that Chinese people are "inscrutable" andsomehow immune to facial expressions and displays of emotion, especially when conducting business. Such a view could only come from someone who has never been to China. It is virtually universal in China for business negotiations to be conducted over dinner ( or sometimes on the golf course ). This is hardly the place for the parties involved to "avoid eye contact" or to conceal personality traits. Instead it is much more often the case that both Chinese hosts and foreign ( including western ) guests open up to each other and get to put their real feelings on the table. The food, wine, beer, baijou and moutai flow freely via a series of repeated toasts and constantly proferred cigarettes. There is in fact a lot of "showmanship" to these occasions and a Chinese boss would gain no face at all by sitting at the dinner table, stoney faced and inscrutable. Rather he or she would be determined to show their generosity and bonhomie to their guests so as to establish a degree of trust and openness regarding the business dealings being undertaken. There is no "unpleasant drama" situations, the only possible debate might derive from whether or not the foreign guests have to the sobriety or wherewithal to face an invitation to the karaoke bar or the massage parlour after the meal where more "scrutable" hijinks may occur.
Reply Report voice_cd 2015-11-13 09:12
Thanks for sharing your story here. We have highlighted your blog.
Reply Report seanboyce88 2015-11-13 23:02
"This article is based on some stereotypes of Western and Eastern people that are generalisations. I believe individuals should be judged for what they are. But these generalisations however have some statistical validity and are very useful for learning."

You probably didn't put this in for me...but I appreciate it friend!  

Interesting article
Reply Report KIyer 2015-11-14 03:32
seanboyce88: "This article is based on some stereotypes of Western and Eastern people that are generalisations. I believe individuals should be judged for wha ...
Hey Sean, that is right. I did not have anyone specific in mind . Thank you for your comment !

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