On the face of it, the situation was quite simple. A Shenzhen museum had promised a group of foreign artists that they would hold an exhibition for work completed while in Shenzhen. However, because the Biennale has occupied the better gallery spaces, the question the group faced was, “Where should the exhibition be held?” Finding an answer to this question entailed too many conversations and frayed nerves. Why?
Simple answer: because saying “yes” seems to be easy in either language, but saying and accepting “no” gracefully are tricky in one’s native language, let alone cross culturally.
Longer answer: Professionals, both Chinese and Western, often find ourselves talking at cross purposes because we think we know what we are saying, especially when negotiating consensus on how a project should move forward. Moreover, we tend to assume that the words we use in our home situation work the same way in a foreign context. Consequently, we usually don’t ask the question, “What do you mean when you say X?” Instead, we become frustrated when our words don’t work as they should, by which we usually mean, “Why aren’t you working with me on this?”
And yes, I assume that in any cross cultural situation, both Chinese and Western professionals are well-intentioned and looking for ways to collaborate. This means that by the time people start talking about what they mean, more often than not, they have become grouchy and less likely to give their interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.
For example, there are all sorts of ways of softening a “no” in American English – not possible, won’t work, can’t help you – but all involve a direct negation. Without that direct negation, an American speaker hears, “Maybe not like this, but still possible.” In other words, as a native speaker of American English, I am listening for both direct and soft negation in order to learn the boundaries of a particular situation. These various forms of “no” help me map the territory that is actually under debate and figure out where and how consensus is possible.
In contrast, I have learned that in Mandarin, even the most direct “no” may come off as soft and inconclusive when translated into English. And more often than not, this has made my cross-cultural negotiations somewhat clumsy and dependent on the good will of Chinese friends and collaborators.
When I first heard the expressions “我会考虑” and “我不反对,” I heard, “I’ll think about it” and “I’m not opposed”, which meant to my English trained ears, “Maybe, moving toward yes” and “maybe, moving toward no”. However, both left me with room to keep negotiating. Only recently have I understood that “我会考虑” and “我不反对” are actually pretty explicit negations. More importantly, these two expressions carry a different emotional valence than their English translations. So in Mandarin, “I’ll think about it” and “I’m not opposed” register differently on the negation scale than they do in English. And yes, the reader should be wondering how many people I have inadvertently irritated through the tackless pursuit of goals that might have been better resolved had I heard “我会考虑” and “我不反对” as “maybe, leaning toward no within the context of larger relationships” and and “maybe, leaning toward no within the context of our relationship”, respectively, and not as “keep trying, there’s still a chance”.
So, cross cultural speculation du jour:
In practice, “I’ll think about it” seems to mean “I don’t actually agree with this idea, but I’ll see if its important within the context of my other relationships. If someone else (who matters more than you) agrees or wants this to happen, we’ll move forward.” In terms of negotiating consensus, “I’ll think about it” seems to mean that resolving the issue entails finding that social connection and making it relevant to my project. The point where cultural finesse comes into play is finding a connection that makes my interlocutor feel good about the project and not pressed into service.
In slightly nuanced difference, “I’m not opposed” seems to mean “no, but I don’t want to say ‘no’ to you because I value this relationship and will keep my word. Thus, I’m still willing to move forward with you. But, I’m not happy about this.” In other words, this form of “no” means that the relationship is more important than one individual’s misgivings. In practice, negotiating consensus involves smoothing many feathers and evaluating the relative worth of the project with respect to the relationship. In this context, most Chinese will choose not to offend their interlocutor, but may end up feeling put upon or misunderstood. This is probably why many things do and do not happen because someone didn’t want to offend someone else (“不想得罪人”).
These two forms of soft no, overlap and may bump into each other, but even so, if they appear in the same negotiation, the sequence seems to be: an “I’ll think about it” may become either an unambiguous “yes” or an “I don’t oppose it”. So, “I’ll think about it” is open-ended, keeping working to find that relationship (找人) that will make collaboration successful, while “I don’t oppose it” is resigned acceptance that we’re making the best of a less than ideal situation.
Most people like to say yes, yes, and yes! It’s just getting there cross culturally takes more time, patience, and humor than it does back home, where many of us (even at our best) have neither the inclination nor the skills to negotiate consensus. Indeed, making consensus a necessary condition on which a project does or does not move forward means taking seriously someone else’s perspective on and stakes in a project as well as our own, rather than simply valorizing the project. And we need perspective, of course. We really do need to figure out which projects are worth our collective efforts and which are simply distractions from the work of being a decent human being. But that’s fodder for another post.