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City Life - Culture
Written by Daniel
Some time ago, I read an interesting linguistic article called Inscrutability Revisited by Linda Wai Ling Young ("Language and Social Identity", 1982, Cambridge University Press) comparing English with Chinese discourse strategies, and arguing that, basically a lot of the frustration English speakers encounter in "getting things done" in China can be attributed to a clash between acceptable discourse strategies between the languages. The article argues that the choice of discourse strategies employed by speakers of either languages is in fact determined by the structure of the language itself. It notes that many utterances (some 50% of them) in Chinese follow a grammatical structure typed as "topic-comment" which stands in direct contrast to the format of European (inc. English) languages which is described as "subject-predicate".

So a sentence which is structured in English as "The giant squid (subject) ate the blue surfboard" (predicate), is structured in Chinese as "Blue surfboard (topic), giant squid ate (comment). This kind of discourse structure extends to a meta-discursive level as well. So, when a Chinese makes a request, the form of the request tends to follow a topic-comment type structure:

"The reasons or justifications for the request appear initially, represent old information and establish the situational framework for the request. In more prosaic terms the listener is given a build-up [topic] before the punchline is delivered [comment]."

To quote a real-life example of such discourse:

"One thing I would like to ask. [Reasons] BECAUSE MOST OF OUR RAW MATERIALS ARE COMING FROM JAPAN AND ( ) THIS YEAR IS GOING UP AND UP AND UH IT'S NOT REALLY I THINK AN INCREASE IN PRICE BUT UH WE LOSE A LOT IN EXCHANGE RATE AND SECONDLY I UNDERSTAND WE'VE SPENT A LOT OF MONEY IN TV AD LAST YEAR. [Request] So, in that case, I would like to suggest here: chop half of the budget in TV ads and spend a little money on Mad magazine."

An English speaker would most likely put it this way:

"I would like to suggest we halve the TV ads budget and spend more money on Mad Magazine. In light of the fact that most of our raw materials are coming from Japan and.... (etc.)"

Note the different functions of the subordinate marker "because" and the conjunction "so" in the Chinese speaker's language. The marker actually functions to initiate the list and the conjunction to mark the change from listing reaons to making the request. The meanings invested in the connectives are somewhat different than in English. Many English speakers do not understand that single word markers such as "because" and "so" actually replace clause connectives such as "to begin with" or "in light of the fact that" in this type of discourse.

Besides that, most English speakers, when listening to discourse such as the above tend to get lost in a mass of information. The main point of the discourse, buried in this mass near the end, is almost always lost on English speakers.

This kind of discourse has been identified as illustrating the so-called "deference" or 'indirectness" tactic which many people identify as an important politeness strategy essential to Chinese discourse, and hence, culture.

So what's my point? I've actually found the application of this kind of information quite useful in my day-to-day communication with my Chinese colleagues. For example I've found that formulating a request to fix my heater like this:

"Could you do something for me? You know it's getting quite cold in my apartment, especially at night. Unfortunately my air conditioner doesn't seem to be working at the moment. So, could you send someone by to fix it please?" is much more effective than saying: "Please get my heater fixed now. It's really cold in my apartment."

It also helps me in that I listen very carefully to what Chinese people are telling me. Often I find there is a request buried in their discourse, where I wouldn't hear this if I didn't know what to listen for. Particularly when they're telling me indirectly, "No, this cannot be done."

Our valuable Editor Daniel has been with us since Wednesday, 11 September 2013.
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