Awesome Speech Habits of Americans

28 Mar 2012

I’ve been slowly reading through Professor Orlando Kelm‘s book, When we are the foreigners: What Chinese think about working with Americans, and right in the first chapter I was highly amused by this passage:

> Recently, Mr. Jorgensen has been working closely with Xiaoliu Li, the human resources manager for TPC China. Upon entering her office, an aura of competence is immediately apparent. Young, pretty, polished, professional, and easy to engage in conversation, Xiaoliu Li gives the impression that she loves her job. In fact, Mr. Jorgensen usually introduces her to others by saying, “I’d like you to meet our highly competent human resources manager Xiaoliu Li.” Almost sheepishly, she acknowledges the the introduction, always noticing, however, how extraordinary it is to hear “highly competent” when making an introduction. Those types of phrases are, in fact, one of her observations about Americans. “You Americans think everything is great, wonderful, fantastic, amazing, cool, or awesome.” Not only do Americans think everything is awesome; they also say so, using these terms in both casual and formal conversations. That style of speech and feedback seems out of place among Chinese. “Chinese aren’t prone to use those types of words when describing people,” observes Xiaoliu Li, “much less when directly talking to them.” Basically, My. Jorgensen is oblivious to the effect of the way he uses vocabulary. To him, it’s just a matter of having a positive attitude.

My wife has made almost exactly the same observation. She claims that it’s hard to know what Americans really feel about something because everything is “great” or “awesome” or “amazing.” (This is, of course, the opposite of what is often said about the Chinese, who always seem to be “hiding their true feelings,” forever inscrutable to most foreigners.) So to her, it’s not that Americans “think everything is awesome,” it’s that they say everything is awesome, which can, in her mind, only be construed as (at least a mild form of) insincerity. So I guess that’s what we Americans get for being positive and enthusiastic about life: suspicion of insincerity!

Anyway, I’m enjoying this book, because instead of trying to make blanket statements about culture, it takes the case study approach and shares real people’s views on real incidents. (Now if only I had more time to read…)

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. “You Americans think everything is great, wonderful, fantastic, amazing, cool, or awesome.”

    is the biggest false premise I have ever heard in my life.

    • Michael Says: April 2, 2012 at 6:11 am

      I have to agree. As an American who decidedly does not think that everything is “awesome”, “great” or “cool”, I have to say that I think this penchant for (positive) superlatives by Americans is very much a regional characteristic. Perhaps the majority of Americans do express things in this way, but it is by no means universal and there are plenty of places in the US where I think that people view this way of doing things with the same sort of suspicion as the Chinese do. (I suspect that with any country as large as the US or China one will find that there are entire regions where the stereotypical ways of behaving simply don’t apply, and this is of course something of which it is worth being aware.)

  2. Great of you to share this. Sounds like an awesome book 🙂

  3. To some degree, us English feel the same way about Americans so it’s not a uniquely Chinese perception. Understatement is preferred: if something is good, an American might say it’s “awesome” or “incredible”; I might say it’s “not bad” or that “you could do worse”.

    • As a Canadian I also see the US tendency to the hyperbole. Although admittedly at the same time I’m occasionally guilty of it especially when implicitly expected to be “cheerful”. I do tend to concur with the Chinese perception however and now the English one. There you have it: a classic Canadian, not sure where we stand response!

  4. Interesting, but I dont know how accurate it is. I think a lot of countries have very skewed opinions about themselves, and Chinese still view themselves as inscrutable, well-mannered, modest, valuing ‘harmony’, when in my experience this couldn’t be further from the truth. When Chinese people introduce me to other Chinese people, it’s not unusual for it to be along the lines of “这是xxx,中文说得非常棒得一个帅小伙” or something like that. Don’t see how that differs from the American above.

    And as for being inscrutable, well-mannered, modest and valuing harmony; Japanese, yes. Chinese, don’t get me started!

    Of course I’m talking about the young Chinese in their 20s whom I mostly associate with, but I don’t think it’s an unfair assumption of older Chinese either. Pre-1949 might’ve been very different. But China’s changed a great deal since then.

    • Peter Nelson Says: March 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm

      While I totally agree that “well-mannered” is a very poor choice of words for describing mainland society, I have a bit of a different take on the cultural differences:

      1. You said that Chinese people often praise you (possibly to the point of sounding ridiculous) when introducing you to other people. I’ve encountered this too, but it seems to be specific to “introducing friends to other people”. It also seems to fit in with something else I’ve seen, where Chinese people will criticize someone they know quite harshly in private but defend their honor in public.

      2. Regarding “awesome”: Chinese (like all languages) has lots of ways of expressing “good”, “bad”, and everything in between. Some of these expressions are rather indirect (不错,还可以,还凑合), while “cool”, “awesome”, and “sweet” are, well, not. Also, the relative rankings of these adjectives is not always the same as in English. 不错, for instance, seems to be a lot better than “not bad”. I imagine the resulting problems of communication and perception are probably similar to Nik pointed out about English vs. Americans.

  5. Even other Americans feel suspicious of people who are too positive (I’m specifically thinking about LDS/Mormons).

    Also, it is widely documented/studied that Chinese (and other Asians) give and receive compliments quite differently than Americans (and, presumably, other Westerners). Perhaps this is part of the problem there.

    • I agree with you Alexis. I get very suspicious of people who are too positive. I grew up in Utah with those type of Mormons who put on the happy face and say the nice things when it is obvious its not how they truly feel. Also, a good Japanese friend of mine acted similar, but it wasn’t hokey or ridiculously bubble-gummy as the Mormons can pull off. It can be quite difficult for me to handle being the type of person who speaks very directly about my thoughts!

  6. Agreed with John… [English Speakers] use figurative language like, “Amazing, Sweet, Cool, Awesome”. That’s the point. It’s not meant to be taken literally.

    Chinese people have their own brand of figurative language (revolving around Cow genetalia)… there’s more to life than “不错” and ”好极了“.

    The notion that Americans are being ‘disingenuous’ when they say, “Wow, that’s an awesome car!” is just… bizarre. For anyone to take casual language/slang as literal would yield some massively awkward scenarios:

    A “Wow, look at that iPad 3.. the screen is jaw-dropping…”
    B *tuns and points at B, “Then how come your jaw hasn’t dropped”
    A “Oh.. sorry.”…. *lowers jaw, “So… as I was saying”

    Don’t make me crack open the whole, “Chinese people don’t get sarcasm” bit again ;-P

  7. I agree with Carl. Not sure I know any Americans that say something is awesome when it isn’t.

    “That 3 hour lunch meeting slamming baijiu was awesome!”

  8. Erick Garcia Says: April 3, 2012 at 4:12 am

    As a Mormon convert (studying at BYU, no less!) I still get annoyed at the fake overly positive attitude sometimes that young people here at BYU sometimes have. We are learning about this in my BYU Chinese Flagship prep class (I just found out I was accepted to the Overseas Capstone at Nanjing University, yeah!) and I showed them this book (thanks, John!). Even those of us who served LDS mission in Taiwan/Hong Kong/Overseas Chinese communities still need to learn a lot about cultural nuances.

  9. Thanks for the tip on the book. Looks like something I’ll be able to use in my training/orientation courses.

  10. Just read the post on my iPhone… When I got to the end I immediately clicked the book link to wish list it on Amazon and muttered aloud to myself “f$&@ that’s awesome”, smiling… And then, I realized just how damn American of me that was…

  11. Chris Devonshire-Ellis Says: April 10, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    I always thought American English needed translations. For example, in restaurants or hotels, “Have a nice day!” actually means to “I hope You’ll leave me a nice tip” which is a completely different thing. In many cases, American politeness is a form of flattery designed ultimately to part you with your money. But then the Chinese do the same thing.

  12. Maybe they should try the British, we are much clearer: http://imgur.com/gallery/eyJNd Although we might indulge in the odd bit of sarcasm, as you do.

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