Cross-cultural Honesty Catalysis

I recently read an interesting and provocative article about a movement called radical honesty. The founder posits that everyone would be better off–that we’d be taking the steps to true communication–if we would all just say exactly what is on our minds. It’s not meant to be hurtful; you don’t insult people and walk away. After you speak your mind you stick around for the fallout, because radical honesty tends to beget radical honesty, and once you strip away the white lies and false smiles, revealing true emotions, you have a basis for a genuine human connection.

I’m not saying I’m a convert, but the ideas are worth thinking about. And it makes for a very entertaining article.

It also got me thinking about whether this could ever conceivably be tried in China, and about some people in my life who might be considered unknowing practitioners. It seems to me that the ones who come closest are certain English-speaking Chinese women, in their dealings with foreigners.

The standard explanation is that due to cultural differences, even if you speak another culture’s language, you can come across as very forward or overly blunt in the context of another culture. This could happen to a Chinese person trying to emulate the brashness of characters she sees in Hollywood movies. But then, maybe she’s trying to carve out a piece of radical honesty in her own life, and the microcosm of foreign culture seems the best place to do it. Maybe she wants to be blunt and direct, because ordinarily she never can be.

It makes me think back to my early days in Japan and China, struggling to make conversation. I could be remarkably direct back then, because I didn’t know how to say a lot, or I simply couldn’t think of much to say and I wanted to keep the conversation started. And it’s true… radical honesty begets radical honesty. Interesting things are said. I think that’s one reason some people like talking to foreigners that don’t speak the local language well… they’re refreshingly blunt in their views.

I am even reminded of a friend who was told by a taxi driver that he was going to commit suicide. Why would he tell a foreigner?

Society will never have that degree of honesty, but I do believe people are looking for it outside their own cultures.

OK, this post is a little over the top… but I think that’s exactly what you should expect of something inspired by radical honesty.

Related Link: Radical Honest homepage


John Pasden

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


  1. That’s really interesting. I’ve thought about that a lot. My Chinese is totally at that level and I usually end up having to say things pretty simply. Especially when I’m tryingt to express how I feel about something. It can be pretty funny at times, and yeah, it’s definitely more blunt than I would be in English.

  2. I hate this post. Honestly.

    Ha ha, just kidding, no I don’t.

    Yes I do. Yes. I’m being honest.

    Ha ha, of course I’m kidding.

  3. I think that Chinese people are often shockingly honest in Chinese as well. And I suspect they think I am shockingly honest in both languages. Just about different things. My sense is that Chinese people feel more free about criticizing how someone does something, with the expectation that you should feel grateful if someone shows you a better way to do something. And perhaps Americans feel fairly free about criticizing some aspects of social relations, such as how someone treats someone else. But I’m less sure about that.

    I also think that your generation of Americans, grasshopper, have gotten extremely loathe to give or receive any kind of criticism, something that makes being any sort of teacher or mentor more challenging than it otherwise might be.

    Very interesting and thought posting, as is typical for both this site and your Saturday show stints and language lessons on Chinesepod.

  4. People feel most comfortable telling secrets to either close intimates or to complete strangers totally outside of their social circle. I’ve never gotten people mentioning suicidal tendencies (that setup reminds me of Christopher Walker in “Annie Hall”), but definitely I’ve told and been told things by strangers who were fluent English speakers, things that would never have been exchanged by casual friends.

    To a large extent that’s what’s behind the Internet and BBSing. People say things they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying otherwise, because it’s relatively anonymous, there’s no consequences, and it’s percieved as not getting back to their real social circle.

    It’s not a language thing. Foreigners are perceived (generally accurately) as being outsiders to society, and safe to talk to – more so if their language sucks and they’re just visiting for a week. By contrast, I have good friends whose English isn’t the best, and I’m not bluntly honest with them, any more so than with my native-English friends.

    And I kind of like white lies. Why is genuine human communication being put up on a pedestal? 99% of what people have to say is BS already. If people were always stating their minds I’d probably hear a lot of “I hate dirty socks” “when you piss in bed first it’s warm then it’s cold” “this food is OK” type comments.

    Oh and I am Jeff but maybe Jeffrey D is a better name, I see another Jeff in the comments section.

  5. Oh hey, on the subject of saying how it is.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a post censored or moderated. Obviously I am a huge jerk, but my track record is pretty decent. How about setting it so that my posts don’t await moderation every other time?

  6. I used to think Chinese aren’t as direct as Americans — that is the conventional wisdom. But now I think Chinese and Americans are just direct or indirect about different things. Also, sometimes you misread what someone says as indirect simply because you don’t know the culture or the rules of communication well enough.

    One trivial example:

    Chinese guy: How do you like my painting?
    American guy: Hmmm…it is..interesting.

    All American native speakers know what this means: the American doesn’t like the painting. Is that direct or indirect? Well, to other Americans it is direct, in a manner of speaking. Everyone knows what it means. To a Chinese observer, though, the American is being indirect — he isn’t just saying “I hate it,” but is using some polite code word. In other words, the meaning to a native speaker is direct and plainly obvious, but the words used to convey that meaning are “indirect.”

    Now, I think Chinese use this sort of polite code language more than Americans do — but the meaning behind these code words is direct and obvious to other Chinese. So are they being direct or indirect? To foreigners it seems that they are being incredibly indirect because they aren’t well-versed enough in these “codes,” but to other Chinese the meaning is clear and direct. I guess I see it as a form vs. content issue now.

  7. One other point.. Let’s say you have this exchange:

    American #1: How do you like my painting?
    American #2: has many positive elements…

    Let’s say #2 actually hates the painting. In this case, I’d say #2 is being indirect in both meaning and form, because he isn’t using the code word “interesting.” So in this case #1 really doesn’t know what #2 is thinking. Just trying to illustrate that there are many “code words” in a language that clearly and directly express a meaning, but whose form or style of expression appear to be indirect — especially to a non-native speaker.

    You can extend this to body language or tone of voice also. Maybe my body language and tone very directly express my meaning to other native speakers, even though my word choice appears to be indirect. Sarcasm is a good example. From an outsider’s perspective, this might all appear very indirect, but it isn’t at all if you know the “rules” and codes and culture well enough.

  8. Jeffrey D,

    Good points.

    I have WP set up so that you’re not supposed to be moderated after you have a comment approved, so I don’t know why you keep getting moderated. I’m not doing it on purpose, but it’s not entirely in my control either!

  9. 88,

    Very good points. And to add to the confusion, besides variation of judgment between individuals, you also have varying degrees of “frankness” within China, according to region.

    Of course, this degree of frankness is always a subjective assessment, and it’s all impossible to measure anyway…

  10. I like the way you related radical honestly to people being more blunt when they have a limited knowledge of the language. And people choosing to be more blunt in another language because they could never be in their native tongue; it’s a really interesting extension.

    Personally I think radical honesty is a good idea but it shouldn’t be taken too far. Insulting people you meet because you want to be honest is not a good idea. I think if everyone was completely honest with each other we’d all be disgusted with ourselves.

  11. I’m not saying I’m a convert, but the ideas are worth thinking about.

    I resent you for being to much of a puss to say anything controversial to either side. You’ve gotta start communicating.

  12. I think the bluntness that we sometimes tend to exhibit in using a different language isn’t because of a weaker vocabulary, but because we HIDE behind the language. I know for me, although I speak chinese adequately, it’s sometimes difficult to really grasp the depth, or tone, of the words I say, because it still FEELS like a foreign language, even as I speak the words. So I end up saying things that I proably wouldn’t say in English, because the native nature of english helps me know what I should/should’t say PRIOR to speaking it outloud. This is expecially true when I’m speaking faster in Chinese with no time to think about what I’m saying. THEN I end up saying things I slightly regret afterwards.

  13. Lets just put this bluntly, Chinese people are not very good at expressing what they are feeling. They might put it into actions, but into words, good luck with that one. I must say complete honesty may looked upon as a virtue in western cultures, but in China, you’re thought of some sort of an idiot, or perhaps nicer put it, tactless. I’m not saying everyone lies, just depends on the situation and the person.

    Alternatively, I have a friend here, who more or less can be characterized as about as blunt as possible. She doesn’t hid any of her feelings for the sake of politeness, and this comes across in both speech and facial/body language. I must say sometimes it sucks. For people who don’t know her very well, it probably comes across as complete bitchness, as one of her close friends, I understand what she means by what she says. This may be a strange interpretation of honesty, but I think it’s worth thinking about. Here’s an example of a typical conversation. Say I leave the kitchen counter dirty after making dinner.

    Friend: “clean this shit up, why am I the only one cleaning”
    Me: “I just finished eating dinner, and someone is still making dinner”

    Typically a polite person would say “can you clean the counter up? It helps if everyone cleans up after them selves.” But is that really honest if that person is really thinking, “clean this shit up, why am I the only one cleaning?”

    Personally speaking, I think it is more effective communication if you are more polite. In this situation, and many other situations, I’d understand that she means “can you clean the counter up? It helps if everyone cleans up after themselves” since I’ve known her for awhile. If she had said that to a new roommate, it would make that roommate feel rather terrible and that roommate would probably avoid her like all hell. People don’t like to get yell at, one of our roommates moved out because of this…

  14. […] of Smith’s Chinese characteristics was “absence of sincerity.” Josh’s “Cross-cultural Honesty Catalysis“ (December 7) at Sinosplice comments on a movement for “radical honesty,” that is, saying […]

  15. […] of Smith’s Chinese characteristics was “absence of sincerity.” Josh’s “Cross-cultural Honesty Catalysis“ (December 7) at Sinosplice comments on a movement for “radical honesty,” that is, saying […]

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