The problem with directness: Chinese vs American


Shudi Peng

I’ve been in America for 4 years and I found there are interesting forms of communication for both Americans and Chinese. Americans tend to be direct, though sometimes tactful; they usually openly express how they feel, whereas a Chinese person tends to reflect before saying something.

After living in America for a few years, my communication pattern has changed. Most Chinese people who’ve had American speech exposure prefer to say things directly. I don’t know if that is necessarily a good thing. Sometimes I like to say something directly but be a little bit tactful. If a person is too direct with me, I may feel angry on the inside without reflecting my feelings on the outside. For example, if someone says something negative to me, I would show no physical emotion but be upset internally.

I once met a female who told me a story about her friend who was a little chubby. Being robust is okay among Americans. However, her friend went to India and it was not accepted as most Indian girls are slender. So when she explored India, people would ask her, “Why are you so fat?” What they said was really hurtful. I don’t like how people can be so direct it could hurt a person. Even though it’s good to be honest, considering other people’s feelings is important.

It’s really hard to say which spoken ways are better – being direct or indirect. For me, a Chinese young woman, I like to say things directly and think directly. Even though sometimes I am reflective, my directness is influenced by my American friends, which is not a bad thing.

So why do Americans and Chinese people communicate differently? I think there are two reasons:

Chinese have thousands of years of culture, and have experienced several dynasties. During these dynasties, people wanted to obtain more power so they had to say things tactfully. For example, when a person wanted to be promoted by an emperor but keep the respect of the people, he would first see what the Emperor thought. Communication was a way to hint to the Emperor whether a person was befitting of such a promotion. During such conversations with the Emperor, people would talk about topics that didn’t seem to be connected. Depending on what was said, the person observed the Emperor’s face to see his reaction.

Photo Courtesy of
Photo Courtesy of

Americans, however, have a mere two hundred years of established culture. The country’s conflicts have been relatively few compared with the Chinese. It seems like most Americans do not care about power struggles or politics of the past or present. Whereas, Chinese people prioritize all things political not to just be informed but also understand why some have political power. The big difference between these two countries made them have a different spoken style.

When Chinese people are little children, they were taught by their parents and teachers to observe people’s words and gestures; to examine words and moods for a clue as to people’s thoughts. As they grow up, they have to study a lot, or they will get fired, and will not be favored by other people.

In American culture, it’s different. They are taught to say words directly when they are young. So when they grow up, they could express clearly how they like or dislike something. This is also why America’s relationship networking is simplified, while Chinese people’s network is complex.

If an American person dislikes another person, he or she will cut off the communication with that person. The relationship, in essence, dies. For the Chinese, however, when there is conflict people still communicate and keep a relationship going out of respect and a mutual understanding that relationships are valued and important depending on a person’s worth.

Different countries communicate differently. It’s not about being right or wrong, but instead about understanding that culture gaps exist and the benefits of understanding one another is invaluable.