WHEN conversation gets confusing, North Americans say, “I know you think you understand what you thought you heard me say, but I’m not sure if what you heard was what I really meant.”
We can learn how to find out what is going on around us in our everyday lives.
But put into a new environment, we don’t know what clues to look for. This can be disastrous or funny - but it is always embarrassing.
Nobody wants to feel “left out” or “clueless.”
As I adapt to China, I learn why teaching culture is harder than teaching language. Language has rules. Context doesn’t.
Every word needs a context to give it meaning. If you don’t know the context, the word is nonsense. You have no “clue” what it means. The “clue” is the thread that leads you safely through danger.
In the Greek myth, a princess gave the hero, Theseus, a ball of thread. He tied it to a pillar before descending into the depths.
As he went down he unwound the “clue.” At the bottom he killed the monster then followed the “clue” back to the light where the princess awaited him.
A word’s context is its “clue.”
A big English dictionary gives a sentence for each meaning a word has.
A thesaurus gives similar words for different “shades” of meaning. However, that’s usually not enough.
Two of my student friends were arguing in my home before our Friday evening movie.
“The countryside is not the city, so isn’t a town or village either. How can you say you’re from the country when I’ve visited your village?” one student asked the other.
“If it’s not city it’s country,” the other insisted.
Finally they asked me: “What does ‘country’ mean?”
My favourite way to answer starts: “Well, it depends...”
To a city person, it’s true that anything not in the city is rural, “country.” To me, “country”means wild, natural, uncultivated, since I grew up near that. To a 19th century writer like Hardy, “countryside” meant small village farming life. “Country” also means a nation geographically.
So both were partially right. It depends on what you mean. Context decides.
The best way to learn context is from people in the language’s culture.
Sure, like the hero you’ll still trip in the dark. But with foreigners in almost every Chinese university and commercial community, you’ll make friends who can give you “clues” about context.
You’ll soon slay the monster of ignorance and win the prize.
Another way to “get a clue” when people are using words you don’t understand, is to ask someone to draw a picture. Especially in a technical meeting, this is vital.
We foreigners often forget that most Chinese colleagues need us to speak slowly and clearly, with explanations.
In many meetings I’ve seen two people arguing. But then a quick drawing brings the comment: “Oh now I see, I agree with you!”
It’s okay anytime to say, “That word is unclear. What do you mean by it?” By saying that, instead of “what does it mean?” you ask for a personal view not a dictionary definition.
Ask your conversation partner to write the word.
Trust me, seeing it helps. I often can’t tell the difference between two Chinese sounds, so when it is written in pinyin then I “hear” it much better.
If the meaning is still vague, say a word you think is close. If your partner says, “You’ve got it!” get on with the conversation. If not, repeat the process until it’s clear. Take the time to understand. After all, that’s what communicating cross-culturally is about.
Dr. Wyse is interested in what you think on this topic. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.（From: 21st Century Online, September 13, 2001）