By Kent Clark, China Correspondent
The ability to communicate clearly with others is a skill. The more people one knows, the more one realizes that riding a unicycle while juggling four flaming piggy banks is easier for some than the simple act of communicating an idea or a feeling. Due to many linguistic and cultural differences, China is a fertile breeding ground for communication mishaps. Of course language is a rather large reason for these misunderstandings, but culture plays a very important role as well. The picture above is one from a series depicting the multitude of cultural differences between China and the generic “west”- a generalization of North American and European cultures.
I like this picture because to me it shows a core difference in communicating: in the west (the left side)people generally like to get to the point so any issue may get resolved quickly. In China (the right side), things have to be be approached more carefully. Things like age, status in the hierarchy of home or work, and being careful never to make another person “lose face” (i.e. to be embarassed) in the presence of others is paramount. I, however, have discovered the tool that allows for the easiest and most convenient way to communicate with others in China. It is called QQ.
QQ is a hybrid of multiple generations of American social media platforms. It has a profile page like Facebook and a microblogging service like Twitter. It’s primary function though, and the reason I swear by its importance to living and doing business in China, is its instant messenging service similar to the old AOL/AIM instant messaging. The reason it is so essential is because everyone has it. By everyone, I mean that I always get strange looks when I need to check my phone when I get asked for my QQ number. It is unfathomable that I have not memorized my number and have to look it up. Many Chinese can rattle of, in terms of importance, their ID number, their phone number, and their QQ number. (As an American, I do not have the skills to remember long strings of random numbers that many folks here can. ) A short story can sum up the importance of being on QQ as it relates to driving our own website business forward.
One day last month, I had a crucial task to complete. There have been some communication issues with our web hosting company, so in my mind the best way to handle it was to go down there myself and make sure everything got done in a face-to-face manner. Direct, American-style problem solving. That day had inclimate weather though, and driving was not an option, so I decided to communicate with our hosting partners via QQ. This turned out to be a fabulous decision. Not only were they able to clearly understand our changes, but because I had stayed at the office instead of going out, I was online and available to start a promising discussion with a prestegious primary school’s English teacher about working with them to get our website and English content into their school. Although that relationship did not prove as fruitful as I had hoped (they wanted free English classes, but didn’t offer anything more than “If the kids like it, I’m sure their parents will buy it!”) it clearly illustrated the importance of making myself accessible online, specifically on QQ.
In my personal opinion, the reason QQ is so popular is because it aligns very well with the right side of the previously mentioned picture. Generally speaking, Chinese culture really does avoid direct communication. Communicating via a text box is the ultimate approach to dealing with others in a non-confrontational way. In addition, QQ has thousands upon thousands of emoticons- small, animated cartoon pictures depicting just about any emotion you could think of. So if even typing words makes one feel they are being too direct (a faux paus in Chinese culture), now one can use silly cartoon pictures to express themselves, while leaving a bit of wiggle room for how any given emoticon might get interperated.
As an American, it is very easy to dismiss this type of communicating as ineffective. I myself have been guilty of losing patience with this method and dropping the common “Well, in America…” defense mechanism. Ultimately though, how things are done in one hemisphere are not really relevant or important to how things are done in the other hemisphere. Instead, I look at learning to communicate this way as adding another tool to the tool box. Some people need to grab the bull by the horns, and some people need a silly, animated cartoon bull getting grabbed by the horns.