Frustrations Embodied in Chinese Communication Skills

I just spent the last four months of my life in Shanghai, China. As I write from the comfort of my plane headed for the states, I’ve been faced with the recollections that accompany an experience like mine coming to an end. I regret not a single aspect of my time in China. I found the trip to be one that has enhanced my life, given me many new perspectives, and taught me about people in ways I never could have imagined. This brings me to my biggest frustration regarding my experience: the seemingly poor communication skills of the Chinese people .As a communications major, I naturally place a large emphasis on being able to communicate well. Without adequate communication skills, there is little hope for advancement when it comes to so many vital social and personal parts of life. I was given the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time amongst native Chinese people every day – the staff in the hotel where I lived, my Chinese professor, and the locals with whom I had to communicate in order to have my daily needs met. The challenge laid in properly conveying questions and concepts to these people, as well as collecting what it was that they were trying to express back to me. Many people blame the language barrier for glitches in communication between people groups, and I can not disagree that this is a key role. However, I believe that there is something deeper at the heart of the issue.

I noticed a pattern amongst many Chinese people with whom I had trouble communicating.

Upon addressing me, so many of them would leave their statements trailing off in a series of stutters and mumbles. Their faces expressed a look that I thought resembled a mix of horror and utter confusion, as if their own words simply didn’t taste right. I would attempt to coax the rest of their words from them, but often it would end in complete dismissal of the topic all together. As one can imagine, this was terribly frustrating especially when pertaining to something rather pertinent. Another example of a hindrance would be the Chinese people’s resistance to modifications when it comes to communicating with people who clearly can not understand them. There have been numerous times when I have clearly conveyed to a native Chinese person that I simply can not understand what they’re saying, and nine times out of ten I received a response that simply included more of the language I was struggling to grasp. One would think that when communicating with someone who’s native language is not that of your own, you may simplify the dialogue or perhaps resort to gestures to accurately get the point across. This, however, is not the case for most Chinese people. Unless I was to give up on the conversation entirely, it was exceedingly common that the person would continue speaking to me in fast, undecipherable Mandarin, their volume increasing as the look on my face grew more and more perplexed.

My Chinese professor was the person I was able to examine the closest, and she displayed some deeply intriguing communication habits. On occasion, my classmates and I would receive phone calls from her, unclear as to their purpose, but on the other end we would experience long pauses and incredibly awkward silences after she would mutter a few words such as “Hello, (name). How are you?”

Although we could clearly sense her uncomfortability , we were confused as to the actual cause of it. In class, she would attempt to call us by our American names rather than the Chinese ones we were used to using. I assume she would try this from time to time in attempt to be more relatable. However, upon doing this, the mere sounds of our own names made us slightly uneasy because of the labored manner in which she spoke them. The names rolled around in her mouth like a foreign object that just shouldn’t be there. “Jeeee-ahhhh” she would beckon, or “Mah-reeee-ssaa”. We appreciated her valiant effort to expand her horizons, but it was clear that all parties involved were just a tad offset by her attempts.

Another oddity that I encountered was the occasional sense of urgency to spend extra time with us students outside of class. Receiving phone calls at 11:00 at night on occasion, we would hear Zhang Laoshi say “I will come to your hotel now. Is that okay?” Of course the last thing we’d want was to be rude, but we couldn’t help but be perplexed by the sudden desire to show up at our doors simply to sit quietly in our rooms and eat cookies with us till she saw it suitable to see herself out. As odd as this was, we all concurred that she meant well and that her desire to learn about American people and culture was, in fact, endearing.

Although there were many days when I found myself bitter over exchanges I had with locals, I’ve tried to see the bright side of my frustrations. This has been a wonderful opportunity to learn about how people operate in a culture seemingly opposite to my own. The Chinese people have many admirable qualities such as work ethic and reverence, and I can imagine that their communication skills are an area for improvement just as other cultures have their own facets in which there is room for development.

The valuable things I gathered from this trip far outweigh the annoyances, and I consider myself lucky to have been given the privilege that led me to my many observations.

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