Sunday, January 20, 2013

Doing Everyday Business in Chinese: What Is the Problem Here?

I want to be clear from the start that I'm not writing this to complain and I'm certainly not writing it to imply that the people I deal with every day are idiots. No, I'm trying to raise certain questions about communication in English, say, vs. in Chinese. I'm trying to present what to me is a cultural mystery because, really, the people I deal with every day are clearly not idiots. The mystery is why they choose to communicate as they do.

The following runaround happens to me all the time. In fact it has happened to me so many times during my years in Taipei that I'm now going to take the trouble to type out an example of it verbatim. Today I walked into a restaurant to order food and the ordering process went like this:

At Mos Burger, a fast food restaurant. About 1:00 p.m. All dialogue is in Chinese:

SERVICE PERSON (a woman, about 23): I can help you here, sir.

ME: Yes, I'd like to order three original flavor MosBurgers, two for here and one to go. On the one to go I'd like no mayonnaise or butter.

SP: Okay, three original MosBurgers. Would you like them with a meal or a la carte?

ME: A la carte. All three a la carte. [I repeat the order exactly] Three original flavor MosBurgers, two for here and one to go, the one to go with no mayonnaise or butter.

SP: Okay. [she incorrectly repeats the order to me] Three MosBurgers, two to go and one for here. And you don't want any mayonnaise on them.

ME: No. I want two for here and one to go. And I only want no butter or mayonnaise on the one to go. The two for here are just regular, with everything.

SP: Okay. Three MosBurgers, two for here and one to go. No mayonnaise on the two for here. [she starts to pass my order to the prep people] Three MosBurgers. . .

ME: No, no. Excuse me. The one to go is for someone who is allergic to dairy. So it's the one to go that has no butter or mayonnaise. No butter on the bread or mayonnaise. The two for here are just regular, with everything.

SP: [she thinks for awhile] Okay. Do you want the original sauce on the three burgers?

ME: Yes, original sauce. Three original flavor. It comes with the sauce.

SP: Okay. So you want three MosBurgers, the one to go with no mayonnaise. Do you want mayonnaise on the ones for here?

ME: Yes. It's only the one to go that has no mayonnaise.

SP: Okay.

[Another service person has been listening. She helpfully pipes in:]

SP2: Would you like cheese on the one to go?

[I begin to feel like I'm on a sinking ship. Consider: 1) original flavor MosBurgers don't come with cheese, and original flavor is what I've now three times expressly ordered; 2) I've already said the one to go is for someone who is "allergic to dairy"!]

ME: No. I don't want cheese on any of them.

SP: Okay. Three original flavor MosBurgers, two for here and one to go, no mayonnaise or butter on the one to go.

ME: That's it.

SP: Would you like those with a meal or a la carte?

[What should I say at this point? Yes, a few years ago I'd have angrily pointed out that I'd already answered that question earlier, and that in fact I'd already given my order four times and it should all be clear by now. But I want to be helpful, the girl is in fact polite, so I just repeat:] All three a la carte.

So I've finally placed my order. But wait. Now the woman has to pass my order to the food prep people. And it happens almost just as I predict. I stand there and listen as almost the same conversation she's just had with me, only slightly less involved, occurs between her and her coworkers. In fact I have to talk to the food prep people myself to clarify what the order really is.

I go sit down at a table and wait for my food to arrive. In my experience, after all that has transpired, the chances are about 50/50 that the order will be screwed up. But when it comes, I check it and it's correct. I then go back to the counter and order a medium iced tea.

Why, you may wonder, didn't I order the iced tea to begin with? I made the omission intentionally. It's because I've been here many years and didn't want to add any further complicating elements to my order--radically complicating elements such as a drink. Since I knew I'd already have to place my order half a dozen times, I wanted to be sure the burgers were straightened out before even thinking about drinks.

This is how it has gone for me countless times in restaurants and other businesses. It was the same again today. Now let me make a few things clear.

1) This is not happening because the service person is stupid.

2) It is not happening because the service person is especially irresponsible or inattentive. No, she was polite and clearly trying to do her job.

3) It is not happening because the restaurant is busy or the service person feels rushed or is otherwise multitasking. No, I was the only customer ordering at the time.

4) It is not happening because Mos Burger doesn't like to deal with special orders. No, they deal with such orders all the time. And after all, my request wasn't even very special: I wanted three of their most common product, one with slight modifications to go.

5) It is not happening because of my Chinese. Though I'm a foreigner speaking Chinese to a native speaker, my Chinese is certainly good enough to conduct a simple hamburger order. A few years ago I used to suspect otherwise--that maybe these runarounds were my fault because I wasn't communicating clearly. Now I highly doubt it. Why? Because I regularly watch locals getting into the same kind of back-and-forth dialogues with each other that I myself just underwent. And today again it seemed the counter person had nearly as much trouble communicating my simple order to her coworkers as I originally had communicating it to her. But why? Why couldn't she just put it into a sentence and they listen to each of the separate elements of the sentence and make sense of them? Why all the back and forth for God's sake?

6) I am not exaggerating this phenomenon. In fact today I wish I'd recorded the whole thing so I could type it out in Chinese as proof. If anything, I've simplified the dialogue.

7) I'm well aware that such things occur in every culture, my own American culture included. But in the West so much back and forth is certainly not the norm. And the point is that even before walking into that Mos Burger restaurant I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen at the counter--that I was going to have to repeat myself at least four times. Because for some reason, in many situations here, repetition of details is the norm.

So what gives? There seems to be something like the following going on: When I as a Westerner go into a shop to place an order or conduct business of some kind, I expect that if I carefully formulate my request in a simple sentence that the service person listening to me will absorb my sentence and organize the elements in his or her head so as to get the desired result. But-- When the Taiwanese goes into a shop to place an order, things are quite different. What he or she expects, and the people taking the order expect, is that there will be a repetitive and circular back and forth about the order, a kind of verbal touch and go, that will continue until the order is all clear in both parties' minds. Further: If the person listening to the order misunderstands it the first two or three times around, this is not rude or inefficient service but rather just how things are expected to be. In short: Taiwanese don't mind repeating themselves: for them such repetition is part of the nature of communication. And further: Taiwanese don't bother to listen carefully, because they know whatever they hear will be repeated anyway.

Am I right about this?

My anthropological suspicions on this point perhaps get some support from another aspect of communicating with Taiwanese that I've long noticed--and one that has often driven me nearly mad. I'm talking about the tendency not to answer Yes/No questions with a simple Yes or No.

Example, on a Taipei bus:

A: Excuse me. Does this bus cross Chung-Hsiao East Road?

B: Where do you want to go?

A: Uh. It's hard to explain. I just need to know if the bus crosses Chung-Hsiao East Road.

B: Are you going to Chung-Hsiao East Road?

A: No. I'm going north of Chung-Hsiao East Road. It's straight north of where we are now. Does this bus cross Chung-Hsiao East Road?

B: What section of Chung-Hsiao East Road?

A: Never mind. Thanks for your help.
Now of course in this case the person might be commended for wanting to know precisely where I was going so as to better help me. But the gist of my question was clear. Either the bus crosses the road in question or it doesn't. The man I was talking to knew the answer, I believe. He just didn't want to tell me with a simple Yes or No. There were so many other issues to be raised, it seems.

I'm afraid this bus dialogue isn't the best example though. It's hard to capture these exchanges in print. It's true that at least weekly I will find myself posing questions to people--friends, strangers, etc.--that have simple Yes/No answers, but I will never get the answer I need. Instead I will get comments on tangential issues or answers to questions I didn't ask. I almost wish I'd kept a journal on these kinds of dialogues: some of them are almost uncanny in the sheer irrelevance of the evasion.

When I want to know if a bus crosses a certain road, why should I be made to feel that I'm trying to coax some secret out of someone?

I'm aware that in business negotiations refusing to give clear-cut answers is often a matter of strategy. And that Asians--Japanese and Chinese in particular--are particularly good at being noncommittal as the terms of a deal are hashed out. Still, why should this kind of dogged avoidance of clear-cut answers happen when the stakes of the discussion are minuscule?

I overhear Taiwanese conversing with each other and notice the same kinds of non sequitur. Namely, 1) a clearly stated order at a counter is not taken as such, but is rather a kind of invitation to go round and round restating the order's elements; 2) a direct question is not respected as such, but is instead an invitation to talk about something else.

What gives? I'm aware that linguists and people in East-West relations have probably studied these questions.

Make no mistake. I love Taiwan and its people. I've come to think of these linguistic oddities as a kind of mystery more than an annoyance. At times such runarounds are humorous because they are so predictable. But what are they grounded on?

Comments very welcome.

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