Every culture has differences in communication and communication styles. These differences may be vast and nearly insurmountable, or they may be smaller, nearly imperceptible differences. Without an awareness of these differences, however, there can be problems with communicating across cultural boundaries. Even within a culture, there can be differences in verbal and nonverbal communication between members of different socioeconomic classes or individuals of different genders; these differences do not necessary preclude communication, but they can cause problems if the people who are communicating are not aware and sensitive to the differences.
For this activity, I was assisted by my friend Hoin, who is from Hong Kong. He considers himself Chinese, but acknowledges that there are huge differences between Chinese people from the southern part of China (particularly Hong Kong) and the rest of mainland China; for the purposes of discussion, we talked mainly about the differences between American culture and Hong Kong culture.
I was informed that every student in Hong Kong begins learning English from an early age, although some learn it better and more completely than others. The school system in Hong Kong follows the British system, and acceptance into international schools where English is the primary language is highly sought-after by students. Hoin himself went to international school, and his English sounds American, but he tells me that it took him quite a long time to master it, and most of his classmates do not have the English level that he does.
One of the major difficulties that they faced, he told me, was learning to spell properly. Because Cantonese (and all other dialects of Chinese) are not written phonetically, the concept of an alphabet and phonetic spelling is difficult for many children to learn. Instead of having to master only one type of writing (the pictographic type) they must learn to read and write phonetically as well. In addition, as they get older, they have to learn the idiomatic turns of phrase that English is known for, and must also master all the strange, rule-breaking spellings and grammatical rules that make English complicated.
I asked him what American idiomatic language confused him the most, and he responded without hesitation: “cool.” After I stopped laughing, I asked him why; he said that many American idioms make sense once they have been explained, but the idea of “cool” meaning so many different things, and was incredibly contextual in its meaning.
We went to eat dim sum together, and we took some time to talk about the differences between eating in American culture and eating in his culture. One of the first things that grabbed my attention was the way the people in the restaurant interacted with the food. Everyone shared everything, and the food was often placed onto other peoples’ plates by other individuals. Hoin explained that this is a non-verbal way to indicate that the person cares about the other individual that they are feeding, but in American culture, this would be considered strange and an interference with the individual’s personal space. I even witnessed one incident of a young adult female feeding food directly into her significant other’s mouth; Hoin commented that this type of behavior is toned down in America, but that it is very common in Hong Kong.
Another behavior that we noted was the use of two hands by the cashier to the customer. I was told that this is a way of marking respect; similarly, the avoidance of the other person’s eyes was a way to show respect for the customer.
It was interesting to watch these people, many of whom were probably American-born, slip back and forth into different modes of communication. With their grandparents and parents, they had mannerisms that were typical of people from Hong Kong; however, when they talked, laughed, and joked with their peers, they slipped back into the American way of speaking, looking, and even sitting.
Wait staff had a similarly interesting response. The restaurant caters mainly to the Hong Kong-Chinese population, but there were a few individuals in the restaurant from other ethnic backgrounds; the wait staff switched freely between English and Cantonese, offering menus and making eye contact in such a way that would make Americans comfortable when they were interacting with the non-Chinese in the restaurant.
Another interesting anomaly that was observed was the lack of hand-holding between couples. Couples who came into the restaurant had their arms linked, and the man was often carrying the woman’s purse; however, it was rare to see a couple come in holding hands. to me, this seemed to be a practical measure, as most of the women I observed were wearing heels; however, I was informed that this was common to see, and that hand-holding was a more “western” thing to do than commonly Chinese.
The Chinese people seemed to have the same sense of personal space as Americans; some cultures have a vastly different comfort zone in regards to personal space, but this did not seem to be the case here. Most of the time, people conversed from approximately an arm’s length away, the same distance that Americans would use to carry on a conversation with a friend or stranger.