Opinion / Blog

The inscrutable Chinese

By KIyer (blog.chinadaily.com.cn) Updated: 2015-11-13 15:53

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

The inscrutable Chinese

I guess most Westerners who are exposed to debating or negotiating with Chinese have heard the 'Inscrutable Chinese Face' expression. I have rarely seen this used when referring to Italians, Mexicans, Arabs, or Indians. This expression is often used as a complaint. It seems to arise from disappointment due to an inability to read the true feelings of someone of Chinese or Asian origin. It’s 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’s usually a negative connotation to encountering an 'inscrutable' face for the Westerner. It’s as if the Oriental person failed to provide something that was 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 becomes a game played according to the 'fair game' rules - where the outcome need not be fair as long as each has 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 that has difficulty reading someone's face, expressions and feelings. It’s like we are little infants once again, just growing in this world 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. 

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